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Modernism's Roots

ENGL 753.301
R 12-3

When Virginia Woolf wrote that "on or about December 1910, human character changed," she initiated an account of modernism that is still with us today. The idea of British literary modernism as a radical break with a mind-numbingly dull Victorian past has had such a hold over us that even contemporary accounts of the movement tend to minimize the nineteenth century's influence on early twentieth-century art. Some of these accounts depict modernism as springing up--as if by magic--from nowhere (the Great War has been a great aid in justifying such originary narratives). Other accounts studiously contain the sprawling and unruly nineteenth century by displacing it: onto France, whose symbolist poets, impressionist painters, and experimental novelists can safely be seen as the respectably subversive ancestors of modernist innovation; or onto fin-de-siecle British aestheticism, whose decadent writers, painters, and personalities broke with mainstream Victorian culture in ways that enabled modernism to make an even bigger break later on. Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Pater, and Wilde are the patron saints of these familiar narratives, which have over time solidified into virtual truism. This course will work to unsettle that truism, tracing an alternative account of modernism's Victorian roots by focussing on the genre whose glaring absence from standard and even not-so-standard accounts of modernism's pre-history demands explanation: the Victorian novel. As the dominant artistic form in nineteenth-century Britain, and as the form that, more than any other, modernist writers loved either to denigrate or ignore, the Victorian novel poses pressing questions for British literary history as we know it. Over the course of the semester, it will be our collective mission to articulate and probe those questions.


There will be a strong theoretical component to this venture: one of our goals will be to find a way to talk about modernism's relation to Victorian fiction that avoids the rhetoric of rupture and origin. There will also be a strong historical component: we will study the Victorian period in depth in order to place novels in context. And we will follow the careers of individual writers, watching them experiment with the novel form, believing in it and belittling it by turns, expanding its scope while exhausting its resources, sometimes even abandoning it, in order to acquire a sense of how vexed the novel was for Victorian writers themselves, and how much of that vexation derived from a largely intuitive presentiment that novel-writing was both the best and worst way to express themselves. As this description might suggest, one of our central concerns will be to assess whether, and to what extent, we can understand the formal experimentation and generic frustration of Victorian novelists as intimations of modernism.


We will begin by reading some of the standard modernist accounts of Victorian culture by Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Lytton Strachey, and others. From there, we will turn to the Victorians themselves, studying a series of formally remarkable novels: Charlotte Bronte's manipulatively-narrated Villette (1853 ); Charles Dickens' epically murky Our Mutual Friend (1865); Lewis Carroll's nonsensical Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865); Wilkie Collins' documentary mystery, The Moonstone (1868); George Eliot's studiously political Daniel Deronda (1876); George Meredith's exuberantly convoluted The Egoist (1879); Henry James' Austenesque Washington Square (1881); Oscar Wilde's anti-novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890); and Thomas Hardy's disgusted final novel, Jude the Obscure (1895). Though the bulk of our time will be spent reading fiction, we will also stray into other Victorian genres--among them criticism, photography, painting, and even plastic surgery--for purposes of contrast and illumination. We will conclude by reading that paradigmatic narrative of historical rupture, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927).


Requirements include: lively class participation, course-related web work, a short in-class presentation, one short paper due at midterm (10 pages), and a longer research paper (20-25 pages) due at the end of the term.

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