Victorian Period

Victorian Period Faculty

Victorian PeriodMU’s English department offers both a wide range of courses in Victorian Studies and a particular concentration on Victorian visual culture.

Faculty Overview
Nancy West’s teaching and research span a wide range of areas, including film and television adaptations of nineteenth- century novels, the intersections between Victorian literature and the visual arts,  and the histories and theories of nineteenth-century photography.  Elizabeth Chang’s research centers on nineteenth-century literature of the British Empire and literature of the global environment, especially literature, botanical, and material culture exchanged between Britain and China. Her teaching includes these areas as well as many varieties of Victorian fiction, including Victorian sensation, adventure, scientific romance and detective fiction, fiction for and about children, Gothic literature, and the writings of Charles Dickens.

Both Chang and West offer courses on the Victorian novel in its many varieties, including adventure fiction, detective fiction, and children’s fiction, as well as courses on Victorian periodical culture, poetry, and more.  Elisa Glick, whose primary interest is in Gender Studies, also offers courses in the fin-de-siecle.

Course Offerings

Newspapers, Magazines, and the Victorian Reading Public

Taught by Nancy West

Capitalizing on MU’s outstanding collection of holdings in this area, this new graduate seminar will introduce students to some of the most important periodical magazines and newspapers of Victorian England, including the Cornhill Magazine, The Strand, All the Year Round, and The Illustrated London News. Leaf through the pages of these publications and you’ll see that they provide a fertile ground for learning about Victorian tastes in literature, art, politics, and science. The Victorian periodical is where Charles Dickens, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Elizabeth Gaskell, Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning originally published their work. It is where essays appeared on a range of topics from "A Single Man’s Kitchen" (Cornhill, 1862) to "The Wonders of the Female Brain" (The Strand, 1891). And, in some cases, it is where advertisements for products like "Pear’s Soap" and "Beecham’s Pills" first attracted the eyes of Victorian consumers. Newspapers and magazines entail diverse materials by definition, and so works like Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White did not appear as free-standing texts but as part of a lively exchange of texts within a single issue (and the larger domain of print culture). These texts, accordingly, might be seen as fundamentally intertextual and hybrid.

If one goal of the course is to discover the intertextual nature of the Victorian periodical, another is to study the dynamics of serial reading. Much of this course will thus focus on the Victorian serial (a continuing story over an extended time with enforced interruptions). We will read in their original installments three novels (Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and The Woodlanders and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters) as well as numerous poems, essays, and short stories by such writers as Charles Dickens, Alfred Lord Tennyson, George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle. What difference did it make that Victorians typically took two or more years to read a novel that we read in about two weeks? A major concern of this course is to examine how reading stories in parts, with pauses between reading periods dictated by publishing format, affected the ways in which Victorian readers first encountered the works of authors.

Imagining Crime in Victorian Literature and Culture

Taught by Nancy West

This course focuses on the Victorian crime novel and, more generally, on nineteenth-century British criminology and its relationship to, and its role as, a Victorian epistemological mode. This course seeks to explore the formation of criminology from a debased enterprise in the early nineteenth-century to one that captured the imagination and interest of late Victorian culture, including, and perhaps most notably, its fiction writers. The course will address a variety of questions that include the following: how did criminology as a "deductive" process develop in conjunction with crime as a subject of nineteenth-century genre fiction? how is criminology a type of narrative formation? what is the relationship between the division of nineteenth-century literature into genres and the development of criminological categories? Among the authors we will read are Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Elizabeth Braddon.

Reading Empire, Seeing the Other

Taught by Elizabeth Chang

In this course, we will be reading poems and novels and looking at art both high and low produced as representation of, or reaction to, the expanding British empire, an expanse upon which, famously, the sun never set.  We will first look at early representations of the “other” through some works of Romantic Orientalism, then move to works that read these “others” as part of the expanding British imperium.  As we proceed we will be asking lots of questions:  how do these works of literature and art shape British perceptions of the world around them; equally importantly, how do these works shape British perceptions of themselves?  What are the differences and similarities between written accounts of British empire and other kinds of representations (painted, photographic, etc.)?  How do these works reflect the changing dynamics of the British empire as the century progresses?  Are they only telling a story of domination and mastery, or are counter-narratives introduced?  Authors to be considered include Byron, Austen, Brontë, Collins, Dickens, Haggard, Schreiner.

The Victorian Novel: Secrets and Scandals

Taught by Elizabeth Chang

In this class we investigate the Victorian novel to discover its many secrets and scandals. Through our reading, we ask questions about Victorian attitudes towards race, gender, and sexuality, towards the inhabitants and territories of the expanding British empire, and towards their own uncertain status as progenitors of the modern. We also talk a lot about how novels work. The class involves discussion, several papers, and a presentation. The novels we read include Jane EyreGreat Expectations,  Lady Audley's Secret, and The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Victorian Child

Taught by Elizabeth Chang

By now it is a commonplace that the idea of “the child” was created sometime in the late eighteenth century, perhaps (as James Kincaid has argued) to fill up an empty psychic or social space.  Our readings of classic Victorian literature for and/or about children (Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Secret Garden) may leave us convinced that we know all there is to know about the state of childhood in the nineteenth century.  But what role do modern constructions of childhood, and our own nostalgia for our childhoods gone by, affect these readings?  How do Romantic understandings of the continuity between childhood and adulthood influence Victorian literary conceptions of childhood?  How do works of social criticism describing the plight of poor children and meant for adult audiences differ from literature aimed at entertaining or enlightening children directly?  In addition to the classics mentioned above, reading for this course includes other books for children—Tom Brown’s School Days, Treasure Island and selections from the Girl’s Own Paper—about children—Oliver Twist, Kim, Child of the Jago—and describing Victorian childhood and Victorian children—in selections from John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, the poetry of Christina Rossetti, and Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor

Imperial Adventure Fiction

Taught by Elizabeth Chang

This course follows the ways that the nineteenth-century British empire took shape in the everyday British imagination through popular fiction. We read from a range of works published throughout the Victorian era that dramatized British activity overseas and ask questions about the ways such works can or should be understood to have ideological effects. This involves asking questions about what exactly popular fiction is in the first place. We also consider the history of the British empire more generally, by studying both the earlier years of so-called informal empire, roughly 1830-1880, as well as the years at the turn of the century when the British empire reached its peak of geographical expansion and influence. A short coda will consider how such fiction resonates today.

Victorian Women Writers: The Brontë Family

Taught by Elizabeth Chang

This class introduces you to the greatest literary family of the nineteenth century and to some of the greatest novels written in English, not to mention some very complicated and dramatic family history. We read novels by three of the Brontë sisters as well as some of the siblings' writings from childhood. We also learn about the creation and dismantling of the Brontë myth, and about the current critical assessment of each of the sisters. Along the way, we also discuss Victorian literature, culture, and the history of women's writing in nineteenth-century Britain more generally.

Victorian Literature of Faith and Doubt

In nineteenth century Britain, religious belief remained centrally important, but Christianity faced unprecedented challenges, producing the Victorian “crisis of faith.”  Victorian believers faced challenges arising from scientific discoveries in geology and evolutionary biology; from historical criticism of the Bible; and from increasing religious diversity and the spread of knowledge about world religions.  This period of vital faith and honest doubt produced an extraordinarily rich and moving body of literature, as writers explored the intellectual, spiritual, and psychological dimensions of religious belief, conversion, and doubt.  In this course, we will explore this literature in its cultural context, studying poetry by Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, Arthur Hugh Clough, and Christina Rossetti, as well as novels and nonfiction prose by John Henry Newman, Charles Darwin, and Mary Arnold Ward. 

Victorian Short Fiction Digital Anthology

Taught by Elizabeth Chang

Though we now often imagine the Victorian era in terms of a few very long novels by a few very important authors, the period produced an astounding range of writings by an astonishing variety of authors. In this course, not only you will be asked to investigate some of these writings, you will also be asked to select and distribute these writings for a new audience.

This course is arranged around a major collaborative project: the development and revision of an online archive of Victorian short fiction from periodicals. In this course, you will be asked to pose and resolve many different kinds of research questions, ranging from historical, to literary, to editorial and digital. You will gain content knowledge in the history of the Victorian era and of periodical publications in that era, the formal and generic definitions of the short story, and in the current state of digital humanities scholarship. You will gain skills in annotating, editing, and using a variety of digital tools to disseminate print texts.