Victorian England – A428, Fall 2013
Victorian England saw major changes in structures of class, ethnicity and gender, an expanding empire, and a revolution in how things were made and who made them. This course looks at key innovations in narrative and poetic form at the intersection of what Victorians called “Life and Art.” We’ll take on nineteenth-century theories of why art—and literary criticism—matter, from Matthew Arnold’s “Culture and Its Enemies” to Oscar Wilde’s “Remarks Upon the Importance of Doing Nothing” and “Discussing Everything.”
This course is designed to help you become fluent in reading nineteenth-century poetry and prose as you develop your own sense of the Victorian period. What feels familiar, what feels new? What surprises you about these historical ways of engaging with the world? We’ll begin by reading periodicals that printed and reprinted a variety of texts, including gothic short stories and essays on needle manufacture. We’ll read Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (which was spectacularly popular) at monthly intervals throughout the semester, and Jane Eyre in three volumes, as it was published. In the final part of the course, we’ll read the poetry of Tennyson, the Brownings, the Rossettis, Hopkins and Hardy in the framework of nineteenth-century criticism.
This is difficult material, and one challenge of the course is simply learning to read the dense language of the period. Victorian culture is at once alien and hauntingly recognizable: ideally, you will begin to recognize the assumptions you bring to a text by “listening” to how other people have read it in the last century and a half. The two major papers for this course ask you to read works in the context of their initial production, and to bring historical as well as contemporary criticism to bear on the text you choose. In contrast to this in-depth focus on a single text, the final take-home exam asks you to pull together your knowledge of Victorian letters into your “take” on the period.
The Broadview Anthology of Victorian Poetry and Poetic Theory, Concise Edition. Ed. Thomas J. Collins & Vivienne J. Rundle. Broadview, 2001. (978-1551113661 | $47.19)
Dickens, Charles. Pickwick Papers. Ed. Mark Wormald. Penguin, 2000. (978-0140436112 | $13.00) Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Richard Dunn. Norton, 2001. (978-0393975420 | $16.80)
NOTE: It is mandatory that you have the correct editions of these texts, in hard copy, and it is recommended that you have a copy of your very own. Research has shown it is more difficult to read online material in depth, and these editions will also provide you with literary and historical context.
We will also read short stories and critical prose online, in the context of their initial nineteenth-century publication in magazines and journals. PDFs are provided, and it is recommended that you print them. Please bring a copy of the online texts with you to class—electronic or paper. These include Elizabeth Gaskell, “Lizzie Leigh” and Dickens, “Preliminary Word” in Household Words (1850); Harriet Martineau, “Needles” in Household Words (1852); George Eliot, “The Lifted Veil” in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (1859); Wilkie Collins, “A Terribly Strange Bed,” in Household Words (1859); Matthew Arnold, “Culture and Its Enemies,” in Cornhill (1867).
Course Goals and Course Objectives (This course is designed to…)
- Teach students to recognize major currents and texts in Victorian literature through reading and writing about a wide variety of essays, poetry and novels
- Make students better readers, able to incorporate two centuries of criticism into the analysis of course texts and attending to historical and cultural context
- Make students better writers, able to analyze texts, to use the written work of others to develop their ideas, and to express their ideas persuasively
Expected Student Learning Outcomes (By the end of the course, students should be able to…)
- Formulate a sustained argument about a single text, supported by textual evidence
- Evaluate contemporary and historical literary criticism, and use those arguments to develop an independent perspective
- Read nineteenth-century prose fiction, poetry, and critical prose competently and carefully
Work commitments: What We’ll Be Doing and Why
Paper 1, due Oct. 8: 15%
Revision of Paper 1, 10%
Paper 2, due Dec. 5: 25%
Reading Responses, Small Assignments: 10%
Recommended Reading Blog Post: 10%
Final Take-Home Exam, due Dec. 12: 20%
Participation & Attendance,10%
The first and most important requirement of this course is that you come to class prepared to discuss our texts and ask questions. Along with writing, class discussion is your opportunity to develop your own ideas, pose questions, challenge the material, and challenge yourself and your classmates to think more deeply. Active class participation by each of you will make this course a success.
You are allowed two absences, because let’s face it, life happens. Use them wisely (e.g. for illness, family emergencies). After this, your final grade will be lowered one-third of a grade for each absence (with 4 absences an A- becomes B+; with 5 absences an A- becomes B, etc.). Students missing more than four class meetings (the equivalent of two weeks of class) for any reason at all will automatically fail the course. Reading responses will also require your attendance and preparation for class.
Reading Responses, Small Assignments: 10%
The reading for this class is heavy, some days in volume, some days in density. You will need to carve out significant time in your schedule in order to complete all of the assigned reading. This is not reading you can do quickly; you need sustained concentration and effort in order to engage with the poetry, fiction and before class. The prose will probably require a dictionary; and reading poetry entails reading and rereading, at least one time out loud. Few poems can be appreciated fully on first reading—plan your time accordingly. It is absolutely essential to the success of the class that you complete the readings before each class discussion—if you cannot do so you should not take the class.
Reading responses are written in class, and small writing assignments may be due at the beginning of class. This written work develops close reading skills for your papers, helps form the basis of class discussion, and demonstrates that you comprehend the reading.
Paper 1, Jane Eyre and “Framing Text”, 4-5 pages, 15%: Choose a passage in Jane Eyre that strikes you as particularly significant and a critical argument about it from the nineteenth or twentieth century (you may choose from the texts in your Norton edition, or propose an alternative). What concepts or language does the critic use that reveals something new about the text? The purpose of this assignment is to use someone else’s perspective to transform how you understand the text. * You may also propose a different course text.
Paper 1 Revision, 10%: The grade received on the revised paper will replace the initial paper grade. Paper 1 will be worth 20% of the total course grade. A separate grade, worth 5% of course total, will be based on thoughtful and extensive revision of Paper 1.
- revised Paper 1
- a one-paragraph summary of my comments and a note on how you changed the paper
- the original graded paper
My advice is meant as a jumping-off place—I encourage you to follow your own sense of what changes would make the paper stronger. If you find you need more space or a different structure, you are welcome to it: I only ask that you let me know what you’re thinking about.
Paper 2, Course Text and Two Framing Texts
The purpose of this paper is to make an argument based on close analysis of a course text. Review the readings for the course so far, particularly the short stories, essays and poetry. EITHER: Choose a poem or passage to write about, and consider what questions it raises for you OR choose a larger course concept, and then choose a poem or passage that deals with that theme in a particularly interesting way. Then select two critical arguments, one from the nineteenth century (I recommend using the Broadview for this!), and one from the 21st century. The former are likely to deal with broader aesthetic or historical questions, and the latter to be very specific to the text you’ve chosen. Use the critical argument to frame your own reading of the text, using no more than 300 words each to describe what the text says and its importance to your argument. Then develop an argument based on a persuasive reading of the course text. You may also develop your Jane Eyre paper into a 12-15 page final paper by incorporating one nineteenth and one twentieth century critic, and appropriate textual evidence.
In class, I’ve asked you to develop your own ideas about passages based on close reading. (Close readings should be “surprising” but “convincing” to anyone reading the passages you chose in context of the larger work.) You should have genuine questions about the specific moments or scenes you select; questions that you would like to answer through the writing process (i.e. questions that you can’t answer immediately – questions that require you to look closely at the text before drawing a conclusion).
This assignment builds on close reading by asking you to listen to what two expert readers have to say and incorporating those arguments into your reading. What does the essay you choose show about the aspect of the text that interests and puzzles you? You’ll agree with some parts of the essay and disagree with others: “frame” your paper by zeroing in on the part of the essay that reveals something about your question about the text you chose. Make a debatable, persuasive argument for how your reader should understand that novel.
Recommended Reading Blog Post, 10%: Both major papers for the course begin with a reading of a single text, which we’ll be doing in the reading responses. Both papers also ask you to take the crucial second step of drawing connections among different texts. SO: Once during the semester, you will be responsible for reading one recommended reading and creating a blog post about it for your classmates, and then pulling it into our conversation– using your reading of the text to move class discussion forward.
Final Exam: Your Victorian Age, 4-5 pages, 20%: This paper, due at the time of the scheduled final exam, asks you to draw on your reading response papers to create a focused overview of the Victorian period, highlighting the key ideas, facts, figures and quotations that seem to capture the “spirit of the age” as you understand it. We will design the prompt together at the end of the semester.