I must say that A Northern Light is, by far, the finest novel I've read in this class. It has such depth of character and plot, coupled with an elegant command of prose, that I actually feel comfortable talking about it as a fine literary work.
I want to share some thoughts (and pose a question) that might be helpful for us in our discussion. I have seen posts regarding some issues of social justice that are essential to the novel, so I won't rework that ground. I actually want to look at the issue of genre (the historical novel) in A Northern Light.
One of our central concerns with the historical novel isn't the accuracy of the novel as history. We heard Ms. Donnelly discuss the issues regarding historical authenticity yesterday. We can see the effectiveness for the "devil in the details" approach she takes. We are convinced of historical authenticity because she has included the minutiae that makes Mattie's world real to us. We forgive, or even ignore, the anachronisms. But those anachronisms inform the historiography of the novel (that is, a continuous evaluation and interpretation of the historical "facts"). Historiography is what makes the historical novel so relevent. Paraphrasing the Marxist historian and critic Georg Lukacs, the historical novel is concerned with the processes of history, espescially recognizing the continuity of historical conflict between those in power and those without. Historical continuity is essential.
What I am leading to here is the recognition that Mattie's education and educational abitions are absolutely anachronistic. If we were to evaluate the novel as history, we would recognize the failure of the author to accurately represent the English curriculum at the turn of the twentieth century, as well as the purpose of education (going to college to develop one's creative writing ability was unheard of until the 1940's-50's). However, the historical novel is about representation, not replication. We are not dealing with ideas about "what it was like back then," but rather we use the representation of the historical past to interrogate our own historical moment. I think Ms. Donnelly pointed this out yesterday quite subtly. I would ask: Is a Northern Light about a girl at the turn of the twentieth century, or the twenty first?