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Literature 4B: British Literature: The Nineteenth Century



This course covers British literature and culture of the nineteenth century. It begins with the literature of the period, usually titled the Romantic period. Some of Britain’s most popular poets are Romantics: Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge and Keats. The period is also a rich one for the novel, seeing both such Gothic masterpieces as Frankenstein, the invention of the historical novel by Maria Edgeworth and Walter Scott, and the social comedies of Jane Austen. Major concerns in the literature and culture of this period are: the relationship between man and nature; art and society; sensibility and civility; poetry as politics; the social status of women; the outsider (whether monster, lunatic, criminal, child or rebel); theories of the imagination; and poetic experimentation. Poetic genres that will be discussed are lyric, ballad, ode and sonnet, as well as fictional genres such as the gothic novel and the novel of manners.
The Victorian period was an age of confusion and profusion, of energy and anxiety. It saw the invention of populist journalism, terrorist explosions, the telegraph, the telephone, the photograph, film, the machine-gun, and the celebrity interview. In literary terms, as an unprecedented expansion of the reading public took place, the period invented: detective fiction; the literary ghost story; the school story; the boy’s book; war reportage; and the spy story. Industrialism and urbanization at home was matched by colonial wars and imperial expansion abroad. These innovations signal the onset of a thoroughly modern society. Authors sensitive to the social instability and inequality that such development brought about, such as Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters and Thomas Hardy reacted negatively or at least critically to such developments. The decline of Christian faith, with attendant fears, also marked the period: Darwin published The Origin of Species; the word ‘agnostic’ was first coined. With economic and scientific developments gathering pace, many authors also engaged with the fundamental question of how to live within such a volatile world George Eliot, in Silas Marner, looks back at a rural society just before the onset of the Victorian era and uses a fable to investigate whether the ideal society lies in the past. Many prominent poets, from Browning to Rossetti, engaged with issues of faith and doubt. Other cultural theorists and writers turned to the idealisation of the aesthetic realm, or an escape into a desirable dream realm, as in the poetry of W. B. Yeats, culminating in the art for art’s sake movement, of which Oscar Wilde is the most famous exponent. At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century, many authors seemed infected with the fin de siècle bug, brooding over the degeneration of western civilization. Some turned to romance, and fantastic modes of writing and cynical caricature to express their reactions to a quickly changing cultural landscape, exploring the tensions of the Imperial project in India, Africa, or closer to home in Ireland.

Teaching method

Two hour seminar per week.

Course objectives

This course will extend and deepen the power of students’ literary critical analysis through in-depth consideration of texts. Students will explore critical debates central to the literature of the nineteenth century. The course will also aim to extend the students’ skills in the reading of narrative and the understanding of the relationship of a text to its cultural/social context. Students will be encouraged to share analytical and critical views on the texts ascribed in class discussion, including, where needed, short presentations, and will focus research skills in the writing of a final essay. This essay will be on a relevant subject of their own choice within the parameters of the course, and will further extend the students’ critical skills and their ability to produce good, clear writing. A final exam will test students’ knowledge of the literature of the period, and give them an opportunity to display their insight, their familiarity with the texts, and the range of their critical ideas.

Required reading

  • Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol.II, gen.ed. M.H. Abrams (8th edn, 2006); referred to as Norton in the reading schedule. You could also use Volume D (The Romantic Period) and Volume E (The Victorian Age) of the 8th Edition of the Norton Anthology, as they are easier to carry.

  • Jane Austen, Persuasion (Penguin Classics).

  • Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (Oxford World Classics (but not the version edited by Marilyn Butler) or Penguin Classics).

  • Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (Oxford World Classics).

  • Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (Penguin Classics)

  • George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (Penguin Classics).

  • Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland / Through the Looking-Glass (Penguin Classics).
    Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (Penguin Classics).

Test method

  • Essay(s) (50%): Two essays of 1200 words (25% each); or, one longer essay on a comparative subject (dealing with at least two texts featured on the syllabus) of 2500 words (50%).
    Both essays are due on the Wednesday following the last teaching week of the semester (i.e. in week fourteen).

  • Final Exam (50%): This exam will feature questions about the literature on the syllabus. The questions are designed to allow students to formulate informative answers based on critical insight into Victorian literature and knowledge of the various important contexts gained during the tutorial discussion and individual study.

Time table

The timetable will be available from June 1st on the Internet.


English Department, P.N. van Eyckhof 4, room 102c. Phone: 071 527 2144, or by mail:


Students can register through U-twist between 1 November and 15 December. After 15 December students can only register through the Departmental Office.


A Blackboard site will be made available, to which all students should sign up before the beginning of the semester.


The reading for week one is: Jane Austen, Persuasion.