Monday, 2 September 2013

Learning from fictional readers

Maria Nikolajeva

Two masters students this year wrote their theses about portrayal of readers and reading in children's books. They were not aware of each other's topics, nor did they know anything about the Reading Fictions project. Apparently it is an attractive topic. Masters students in children's literature are typically passionate readers. If you are a passionate reader you are likely to empathise with fictional readers. And you may wish to be like them. But it has its dangers, as Kim Reynolds pointed out last week.

The Russian national epic, Eugene Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin (better known in the West as an opera), which we had to endure in school just as English schoolchildren have to endure Shakespeare, features such a passionate reader. The thirteen-year-old female character, Tatiana, is technically what we would today call an adolescent, but socially no more so than the Bennet sisters, since she is available for marriage. Isolated at her parents' country home in the beginning of the 19th century, she finds company in books, and her favourite author is Samuel Richardson. When we read Onegin in school, age thirteen, we had no idea about Richardson, who could just as well be a fictitious writer. Yet we were curious about the books, which the condescending narrator calls “dangerous” for young girls' imagination. To Pushkin's contemporaneous readers, Richardson's novels were well known and apparently represented bad taste suitable for sentimental young ladies, but equally misleading about harsh reality. The narrator states explicitly that Tatiana was diluded by “the fictions of the British muse”. She identifies with the novel heroines and imagines herself as one of them. As a fatal result, she falls in love with the neighbour gentleman, the cynical Onegin, writes him a love letter – as a romance heroine would – is rejected and marries the first best man who proposes to her. No happy endings in Russian classics.

As thirteen-year-old girls, we identified with Tatiana and imagined ourselves as her, with a firm belief that, unlike her, we would never be rejected by the object of our affection. Did we learn any more from books than Tatiana did?

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