History’s head honcho myth busts jolly olde England
Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 01:01
This summer, eight history students will join Marjorie Levine-Clark in exploring her favorite playground: London, England, home of Oliver Twist, Dorian Gray, and Queen Victoria.
Students in her maymester class The Victorian Metropolis will chose a 19th century novel, and in Levine-Clark’s words, “The assignment is to go out and find the London of your Victorian novel.”
They’ll visit the streets where Oliver learned the pickpocketing trade from the Artful Dodger, and the squalid neighborhood of George Gissing’s The Nether World, now a gentrified quarter of central London. The goal is to see how the Victorians and their lives impacted the present.
“We’re looking at the relationship between the values that led to the creation of these amazing structures that still exist today,” she said.
It’s not all that different from what Levine-Clark does every day. That is, sift through the marginalia of history to get a better picture of Modern Britain. Since 2009, Levine-Clark has been the chair of CU Denver’s history department, and from her days as a graduate student at the University of Iowa, she’s been teaching on her pet subjects, namely modern England and gender and sexuality—and sometimes both at the same time.
She published her first book in 2004 with Ohio State University Press, titled Beyond the Reproductive Body: The Politics of Women’s Health and Work in Early Victorian England. Though she admits that “The whole process is just very anxiety producing,” the book led to a tenured position at UCD and epitomized her approach to busting the myths of Victorian women.
The Victorian Era brings to mind images of bone-crushing corsets, frigid society ladies, and an especially chilly attitude toward sex. But as Levine-Clark explains, the prevailing ideas about the Victorians were formed by historians and researchers looking at the popular printed materials of the time, and especially advice books.
Imagine classifying 21st century American women with He’s Just Not That Into You. “There was less access to figure out what people were actually thinking,” Levine-Clark says. “Where this field is now is looking at those gaps between what you’re supposed to be doing, and what people were actually doing.”
Beyond the Reproductive Body is devoted to exploding the myth that women’s biological weaknesses made their disadvantaged position inevitable. “Yet during the Industrial Revolution, women are in factories, they’re in coal mines, they’re doing all this work that they hadn’t traditionally done,” Levine-Clark explains.
As she works on her next book, this one tackling masculinity, unemployment, and welfare in the 19th and 20th century, and looks to her maymester in London, Levine-Clark hopes to instill a new approach to history in her pupils. Levine-Clark said, “I tell my students that history is really about a set of possibilities...rather than a single truth.”