Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Novel Time Machines

ENGL 255.301
TR 9-10:30

Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Charlotte Bronte, and George Eliot were the premier novelists of their day--they wrote bestsellers, and those bestsellers made them internationally famous. And yet their best known and most acclaimed work is preoccupied with a time that is far removed from that in which they wrote. This course turns on that paradox, taking as its starting point the observation that many of the most important and successful works of Victorian fiction are not set during the Victorian period, but instead take place during the years immediately preceding it. Dickens made his name in 1836 with the Pickwick Papers, an irrepressibly nostalgic story about the already long-lost Georgian England of 1829. Thackeray made his name in 1847 with Vanity Fair, a searingly acerbic indictment of English society during the era of Waterloo. That same year, Bronte burst onto the English literary scene with Jane Eyre, a powerfully resonant tale of personal quest set during the first decade of the nineteenth century. George Eliot followed a similar trajectory: Adam Bede (1859) made her famous with its late eighteenth-century tale of infanticide; Middlemarch (1871-72), a "study of provincial life" between 1829 and 1832, established her as the century's finest novelist.

Beginning with Sir Walter Scott's Waverley (1814), the first, and arguably the greatest, of English historical novels, this course will concentrate on a select handful of Victorian culture's many "novel time machines." Scott wrote during the era that consistently preoccupies Victorian novelists; as the examples above show, their own historical fiction is frequently set during the moment when Scott was himself inventing the genre. We will attempt over the course of the term to unravel the complexities of this convergence, asking both why the Romantic era interests the great Victorian novelists and how the writing of these novelists develops Scott's Romantic aesthetic into a protocol for Victorian realism. We will attend closely to the means by which Victorian writers sought to write history through fiction, as well as to how they tried to capture the essence of their own moments by looking backward. The various moods of these literary backward looks will also occupy us: they range from the buoyant optimism of Dickens' Pickwick Papers to the biting satire of Thackeray's Vanity Fair to the measured, scholarly realism of Eliot's Middlemarch.

We will round out our study of novel time machines with a look at Anthony Trollope's defiantly present-centered blockbuster, The Way We Live Now (1875), and we will conclude with a look at the slim, fin-de-siecle volume that formalized the nineteenth-century novel's longstanding treatment of narrative as a form of time travel: H. G. Wells' Time Machine (1898). Along the way, we'll sample the work of various Victorian nonfiction writers who were concerned with what it meant to record history, what it meant to create art, and what it meant to do both at once.

Requirements: one short paper (5-7 pages), one longer research paper (10-12 pages), weekly listserv posts, regular attendance, lively participation, and a final exam.

fulfills requirements