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Topics in the 19th Century Novel

ENGL 255.301
instructor(s):
TR 9-10:30

The Victorians are remembered as much for their moods as for their novels. Earnestness, prudishness, perversity, complacency, boundless optimism and bottomless despair are all indelibly linked, in our minds, to that peculiarly conflicted abstraction, the Victorian temper; just as the works of Dickens, Eliot, Carroll, Collins, Flaubert and Wilde all embody wildly divergent visions of that fantastically malleable animal, the Victorian novel. This course will take as its animating premise that the Victorian novel did much to shape�or temper�the Victorian temper; that, indeed, Victorian moods may be said to be inseparable from Victorian novels, which alternately helped to bring a range of modern affects into being (among them boredom, nervousness, love and depression), and worked to initiate the analysis of affect that eventually became the modern science of psychology. In its thematic treatment of affect, the Victorian novel mapped and modelled the contours of the modern temperament. And as a form designed to be read over long periods of time, often in isolation, always with patience, concentration, sympathy and interest, the novel required a type of responsiveness that was at once rapt (capable of identifying fully with the feelings of fictional characters) and removed (aware of itself as a reality apart from the world of the novel). Over the course of the semester, we will study the moods embraced and enjoined by particular novels alongside nineteenth-century writing about mood in popular journalism, conduct books, political economy, and psychology. Jane Austen's famous investigation of the dangers of excessive reading and feeling, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (1811), will lay the groundwork for our inquiry. We will then move on to Charles Dickens' PICKWICK PAPERS (1836-7), the first, and arguably the happiest, of all Victorian novels. From there we will travel on down through the century, making stops at Gustave Flaubert's scandalously erotic novel about boredom, MADAME BOVARY (1857); Wilkie Collins' sensational celebration of nervousness, THE WOMAN IN WHITE (1860); and Lewis Carroll's nonsensical take on curiosity, ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND (1865). We will end by comparing the moral seriousness of George Eliot's fiction (as embodied in a short, but very serious, snippet from MIDDLEMARCH [1872]) to Oscar Wilde's satirical take on both Victorian idealism and Victorian letters, THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST (1895).