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Victorian Literature and the Culture of the Review

ENGL 051.001
MWF 11

This course is a survey of Victorian literature (including novels, non-fiction, and poetry) focused through the lens the book review, one of the most important Victorian genres. We will combine our close readings of literary texts with an examination of their historical and cultural contexts, drawing on the Van Pelt Library’s extensive holdings of nineteenth-century rare books in order to do so. We will look especially closely at the discourses around reviewing, discussing questions of puffing (the practice of artificially inflating a book through influencing its reviews), the anonymity of reviewers, and self-reviewing as we simultaneously consider broader questions about class, gender and sexuality, and the idea of modernity. We will draw on reviews of the specific literary texts we read in order to look at some questions and concepts central to literary and cultural theory, including ideas of investment and objectivity, critical distance, theories of reading, writing, and reception, the categories of "primary" and "secondary" texts, and intentionality. We will also think about on the afterlife of some earlier texts (like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Johnson’s Rambler) in Victorian England. We will read canonical authors like Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, Alfred Tennyson, George Eliot, John Ruskin, and Oscar Wilde, as well as briefer selections from the writings of less familiar writers like Harriet Martineau, George Henry Lewes, and Walter Bagehot.