ENGL 355: Literature of the Victorian Era


Professor Russell A. Potter




The Victorian era, uncannily kindred to our own and yet conceived of as impossibly old and distant, is for both these reasons a rich ground for literary and cultural study.   Like Vincent PriceÕs mansion in Edward Scissorhands, it looms over our placid, suburban worldview, appearing only when our rear-view window is askew, and yet like that image, far closer than it seems.  We will spend this semester investigating the texts, the images, the sounds, the media, and the mindest of this period, seeking at all times to maintain a broadly panoramic frame (and indeed, as we will see, the very idea of the ÒpanoramaÓ was yet another Victorian invention).  We will read the texts of some of the more distinctive literary writers of the era – Dickens, Carlyle, Morley, Eliot, Hopkins, and Stevenson – alongside visual artists such as Turner, Landseer, Selous, and Cameron.  We will also examine the decorative and domestic arts, stroll under the glass arches of the Crystal Palace, take in a balloon ascent at Vauxhall Gardens, and attend lecturs at the Royal Polytechnic; we will listen to street ballad-singers, squeeze onto a bench-seat at a ragged school, and thumb through the pages of Punch and the Illustrated London News. 


Our journey will be enabled, in part, via our class WebCT site, along with online archives such as the UKÕs Public Records Office, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the digitized Carlyle letters at the University of VirginiaÕs website.  We will also read, in their entirety, a selection of novels, essays, and poems, among them CarlyleÕs On Heroes and Hero-Worship, DickensÕs Hard Times, EliotÕs The Lifted Veil, and StevensonÕs Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.  We will also have several clusters of readings around historical events, including the lost Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin, the Crimean War, and the Whitechapel Murders.  There will be weekly responses to our readings and viewings on WebCT, along with two formal papers on a subject of your choosing from this era.