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Q&A: Andrea Henderson

19 Cents

Author: David Agruss/Monday, May 13, 2019/Categories: The 19 Cents Blog

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Andrea Henderson is professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Romantic Identities: Varieties of Subjectivity, 1774-1830 (Cambridge University Press, 1996) and Romanticism and the Painful Pleasures of Modern Life (Cambridge University Press, 2008). Her most recent book, Algebraic Art: Mathematical Formalism and Victorian Culture (Oxford University Press, 2018), is a study of formal abstraction in Victorian mathematics and literature.

What was the last experience that made you a stronger scholar-teacher? I recently had a series of student conferences that left me feeling that students now are suffering from anxieties far more profound than any I’ve seen in all my years teaching. At the same time, I’ve been rather astonished to learn how many of them truly love—and even seek solace in—poetry. I can’t say that these discoveries have necessarily made me a stronger teacher, but they have led me to devote more space on my syllabi to works that could be described as world-weary or skeptical, because such works seem to touch on something that is very live in my students. These conversations have also made me aware in a new way of the value of the teaching we do.

What was the last book you read? Newton’s Principia Mathematica. It’s been a busy term, and reading Newton, with all its challenges, took me far away from the world of committees and paper-grading. I could linger over it, or puzzle over a diagram, or ruminate on the nature of “force,” all without feeling that I had to master it or rush through it. Better still, I got some colleagues (generous ones!) to read the philosophical sections with me, so I also got to share the absorption with friends. And it reminded me just how strange gravity is!

What was the first nineteenth-century-themed item you bought with your own money? When I lived in Ann Arbor I had a favorite discount bookstore where I regularly bought books I didn’t remotely need. I remember feeling especially sheepish about buying two books on the photography of Clementina, Lady Hawarden. At the time, I was a Romanticist, and I had no intention of ever writing on any Victorian topic, much less Victorian photography. But I loved the photographs, and a decade later I returned to those books when I found myself writing on Victorian formalism. I still enjoy those books.

If you could become any nineteenth-century fictional character, whom would you choose? Marian Holcombe from The Woman in White—she’s such a great Victorian heroine. Smart and brave, and she never loses her composure.

If you had the opportunity to go back to the nineteenth century and have one two-hour dinner with one person, with whom would you want to dine? James Clerk Maxwell. I feel that I ought to choose someone who was notable for the personal impression he or she made—someone like Byron. But I’ve had a bit of a crush on Maxwell since I started studying his life and work. He had a remarkably versatile mind, the counterpart, it seems, to his modest manner. And he had a playful side and a good sense of humor. I remember once confessing my crush to another student of Maxwell, and he instantly understood what I meant!

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