Dr. Maha Jafri and her expansion collection of texts. Photo by Simon Bose (C’18).
By Richard Pryor III
To quote Assistant Professor of English Maha Jafri, Victorian-era authors were “obsessed with gossip” – and this obsession is manifesting itself in her research.
A Victorianist who received her PhD from Northwestern, Jafri, who joined the Sewanee English Department in 2016, is spending this academic year on sabbatical working on her research funded by a grant from the American Association of University Women (AAUW).
The AAUW, founded in 1881, seeks to, according to their mission statement, “empower women and girls through research, education, and advocacy.” This is a cause close to Jafri’s heart, being a woman in academia and a graduate of the Emma Willard School, a well-known women’s-only high school and the first school to teach women math.
However, she makes it very clear that she does not see herself as a scholar of gender, despite what her dissertation title – Between Us: Gossip, Sociability, and the Victorian Novel might suggest. “You can’t not discuss gender in an era where women were oppressed yet there was a major suite of women’s work,” she says, pointing to the examples of a number of authors of her era who have been looked at the most in academia – authors like George Eliot, but not Charles Dickens.
She also opposes any attempt to make gossip a gendered idea, as in Victorian novels, “everyone gossips.” And her interest in gossip lies in wondering “how do we take an ethical interest in the lives of others?”
She argues that novels from this era like Eliot’s Middlemarch encourages the reader to sympathise with the victims of gossip, yet the similarities between such narrative writing and actual gossip encourages us to enjoy something that is “predicated on the humiliation of others.”
With her AAUW funding and an entire year free of teaching responsibilities, Jafri has already spent time working at her alma mater, Northwestern, as well as Yale, whose Beinecke Library holds the papers of the novelist and poet George Meredith, who Jafri was researching. Jafri is working on new material for an upcoming academic monograph on gossip – currently, writing sections on Anne Brontë and Oscar Wilde, as well as revising some old material on Eliot.
She will also join Briana Wheeler (C’20) at the North American Victorian Studies Association conference in Columbus, Ohio next month, where Wheeler will present a paper written for one of Jafri’s classes on the works of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. If that wasn’t enough to keep her busy, Jafri is also preparing a new course on the Theory and history of the novel and narrative.
Jafri is also cognizant of where this sabbatical year falls, noting that Sewanee will soon begin its celebration of 50 years of coeducation, and Eliot will be remembered on what would be her 200th birthday in late November – which will be accompanied by a celebration hosted by the English Department. But to sum it all up, Jafri says that she “could not be more grateful and it could not have fit better” to have this experience right now.