Undergraduate English Courses

358:332 Victorian Literature

01  TF3   CAC  18227   WILLIAMS  SC-221

Why study Victorian literature and culture? It's too bad that sometimes today people think the term "Victorian" simply means "prudish" or "old-fashioned." But neither of those attributions is fair or accurate in the least. "Victorian modernity" will be the focus of our course.

The Victorian Age (c. 1830-1900) is an important precursor of our own time -- and from it we can learn a lot about concepts and habits still familiar today: social class and class mobility, the concept of "culture," geological and biological evolution, the idea of the unconscious, the rise of a global empire, modern discourses on gender roles and sexualities, the invention of photography, melodrama and cinema (just to name a few!). Of course, the Victorian period is also very different from our own – and in this double view, both of its similarity and its difference, we can see the real value of studying the past.

We're going to read some of the best literature of the nineteenth century – by Tennyson, Dickens, Eliot, both Brownings, Ruskin, Pater, Wilde and others – literature that will make vivid both huge cultural markers like the industrial revolution, the transition from coach and carriage to railroad travel, the growth of an imperial global network, the invention of technologies that made cinema possible -- and more particular cultural markers such as mutton chop whiskers, bustles, corsets, and hoop petticoats, elaborate practices of mourning, belief in fairies, huge glass houses, nonsense verse and children's literature (Alice in Wonderland is a key Victorian work), not to mention Queen Victoria herself. (She is still the longest-reigning British monarch.)

In literary terms, we will learn what novelistic "realism" means, and why the dramatic monologue was so important. But this course will include paintings, photographs, music, and architecture as well as literature. At the end of the semester, students will have a visual and tactile sense of the "Victorian," as well as a literary one.

Finally, we will be able to see why some modernist writers – Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, among others – wanted to rebel against their Victorian forebears. Twentieth-century modernism can only be well understood against the background of Victorian modernity.