Nov. 7, 1996
Vol. 16, No. 5

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    Profile: Janel Mueller

    Janel Mueller, the William Rainey Harper Professor in the College and Professor in English Language & Literature, first became fascinated with English Renaissance literature in college when she fell in love with John Donne's poetry. She now shares that love of the Renaissance -- and her own vibrancy -- with her students.

    The editor of Modern Philology, Mueller recently won the James Holly Hanford Award, given by the Milton Society, for the best article published on Milton in 1995. She won a Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 1982, and a Guggenheim fellowship in 1972. Mueller is an expert on the development of early modern English prose, with research centering on John Milton, John Donne, Queen Katherine Paar, and, currently, Queen Elizabeth I. She has taught at the University since 1967. You gave a talk at the recent Humanities Open House on Queen Elizabeth -- and I notice your walls are covered with portraits of her. Why do you find her interesting? Elizabeth became queen at a very challenging time, in the mid-16th century. The economy was unstable and it was unclear whether England would end up being Catholic or Protestant. However, her biggest problem -- well, that's how it seemed at the time -- was that she was a woman. But she turned that "problem" into a challenge. She thought of herself as "God's handmaid," and said that carrying out the will of God for the good of England was a full-time job, so she didn't have time to marry or have children. She was a tremendous ruler -- intelligent, attuned to history. I'm presently editing a selection of her writings with Leah Marcus from the University of Texas at Austin.

    Would you have wanted to live back then? Oh, no, I don't think so. People wrote very indiscreet, even mean, things about Elizabeth -- they wrote how her teeth blackened as she aged from sucking on too many sweets, and that her hair dye was not very convincing. As a mature woman, I'm happy to inhabit my own historical body. And I'm happy to have modern conveniences like health care and dental care -- and indoor plumbing. But if I could travel in a time machine, or engage Elizabeth in some virtual reality kind of way -- I would like that.

    What would you ask her? Why she didn't stipulate that James VI of Scotland should become her heir to the English throne. He wrote her about it once, asking for an "instrument," meaning a will, for that purpose, and she wrote back saying -- and she thought she was being funny, though she wasn't, really -- she wrote saying that she needed her virginals and lutes and other musical instruments, deliberately misunderstanding him.

    With all your interest in Elizabeth, are you part of the new Gender Studies program? I'm on the periphery. They've listed my courses, but I'm not too involved -- I think they concentrate more on research with contemporary applications, and rightly so at this point. I am a feminist. In the mid '70s, when concentrators in English had to write a B.A. paper and the Department told them they could write on anything, 17 senior women decided they wanted to write about women writers -- but we didn't teach any courses on women writers then! So I volunteered to teach such a course. It wound up being not at all in my field, because I geared it toward the women they wanted to write about -- Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Marge Piercy. Renaissance writers who are women are few and far between, so I learned a lot that quarter.

    You seem to like teaching . . . I love teaching. I don't think there is anything else that lends such a sense of vitality as having a good class, when everyone moves along a path together. Every class is different -- some are electric, some sluggish, some a mixture of both. It's a perpetual challenge, and I find the conversations I have with students are worthwhile and rewarding. It is wonderful to share ideas, questions and criticisms across an increasing generational divide.

    What do you do outside research and teaching? You don't dress up like people at Renaissance festivals, do you? (laughs) Oh, no. The only mildly frightening thing about me, I guess, is that my husband [Ian Mueller, Professor in Philosophy] and I collect wild mushrooms.

    Sounds dangerous. We've never had a bad experience, although we're very careful, of course. But once you start doing something like this, or something like bird watching or butterfly collecting, you never look at your surroundings in quite the same way. For instance, just last week I found a delicious crop of Shaggy Manes. They were in the tanbark around the Lab School.

    -- Jennifer Vanasco