English 155bn. The Nineteenth-Century British Novel

Instructor: Victoria Wiet
Monday & Wednesdays, 3:00-4:15 pm | Location: Sever 103

This course explores how the relatively new cultural form of the novel represented and responded to the new features of social life that characterized nineteenth-century Britain. The nineteenth century was a period of drastic historical change in which the institutions that continue to define modern life became consolidated: companionate marriage, mass transit, urbanization, telecommunications, colonial expansion, secularization, innovations in medicine and psychology, and the establishment of mass culture. Even after they achieved eminence, these institutions continued to evolve at a rapid pace that perhaps only the novel could capture. The novel was in a privileged position to represent and reflect on how these new developments affected everyday life because of its extended length, flexible form, and intricate techniques for examining the relations among self, society, and the world.

This course begins with Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in order to establish how the novel form represents these relations, with particular focus on how novelists connect their provincial settings to the operations of empire. The next unit explores how the relation between self and society changes with the emergence of the modern city, where the upheavals of industrial capitalism have particularly insidious effects. Next, we consider how new understandings of the self developed in medicine and psychology affect one’s relations to others. In the final part of the course, we turn to two works that reflect on whether the institutions of modern life are harmful or liberating, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis. In addition to the works mentioned, we also read Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, Anthony Trollope’s The Warden, George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.