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Studies in Victorian Literature:

Sensational Fictions

Course Description

This semester, we’ll sample a few of the Victorian period’s sensational novels. This is not a course in sensation fiction, per se. It is a big-picture survey of the nineteenth-century novel with a focus on plots of murder, mystery, and mayhem:

  • Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton (Penguin, 1996)
  • Charles Dickens, Bleak House (Penguin, 2003)
  • Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret (Oxford, 1987)
  • Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone (Oxford, 1999)
  • Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds (Penguin, 2004)
  • Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Norton, 2003)
  • Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Broadview, 1998)

Seminar members will make substantial and sustained contributions to the weekly meetings, actively contributing to discussions of the primary texts, presenting secondary research to the group, and reporting on their individual research projects. The success of the seminar depends largely on the commitment of its members to the common enterprise. As with any graduate seminar, this course requires regular attendance and active participation. Frequent absences, whatever the reason, will lower your grade significantly. Though the syllabus is, admittedly, challenging, it has been carefully designed to produce an intellectually enriching experience.  If you’re looking for an easy, book-club chat, this is not the course for you.

Reading Schedule
7 January
Introduction and Course Overview
14 January Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton (1848)
Chapters 1-18, Pages 3-213

Richard Altick, selections from The English Common Reader
21 January Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton
Chapters 19-38, Pages 213-393

Lisa Surridge, “Working-Class Masculinities in Mary Barton”

Doris Williams Elliott, “Servants and Hands: Representing the Working Classes
in Victorian Factory Novels”
28 January

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853)
Parts I-VI (Chapters 1-19), Pages 13-315

--Selected Online Dickens Resources

4 February Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Parts VII-XIII (Chapters 20-42), Pages 315-669

Chris Vanden Bossche, “Class Discourse and Popular Agency in Bleak House”
11 February Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Parts XIV-XX (Chapters 43-60), Pages 669-989

Hillis Miller, “Discipline in Different Voices”

Emily Steinlight, “‘Anti-Bleak House’: Advertising and the Victorian Novel”
18 February Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley's Secret (1863)
Volume I, Chapter I through Volume VII, Chapter VI (Pages 1-210)

Susan Bernstein, “Dirty Reading: Sensation Fiction, Women, and Primitivism”
25 February Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley's Secret
Volume II, Chapter VII through Volume III, Chapter X (Pages 211-447)

Lynn Voskuil, “Acts of Madness: Lady Audley and the Meanings of Victorian

Vicki A. Pallo, “From Do-Nothing to Detective: The Transformation of Robert
Audley in Lady Audley’s Secret”
4 March Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone (1868)
"First Period" (pages 1-190)

--"The Moonstone and British India"
--Wilkie on the Web

--Contempory Biographical Sketches of Collins
11 March Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone
"Second Period" (pages 191-466)

Graham Dawson, “The Adventure Quest and Its Cultural Imaginaries”

Sean Grass, “The Moonstone, Narrative Failure, and the Pathology of the Stare”
18 March Spring Break
25 March Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds (1872)

Chapters 1-40, Pages 39-407

1 April


Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds

Chapters 41-80, Pages 408-770
8 April

Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)

Julia Kristeva, “Approaching Abjection”

Steven Arata, “The Sedulous Ape: Atavism, Professionalism, and Stevenson’s
Jekyll and Hyde”

15 April

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

Nils Clausson, “‘Culture and Corruption’: Paterian Self-Development versus
Gothic Degeneration in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray”

Susan Stewart, “The Souvenir”
22 April

Project Updates and Student Presentations

Students will distribute their bibliographies and teaching packets. ALL bibliographies and teaching packets must be complete and uploaded to Blackboard by this date.

29 April

Semester Projects Due
ALL semester projects are due by 6:30 pm. ALL bibliographies and teaching packets MUST be uploaded to Blackboard by this deadline. Per English Department and Graduate College guidelines, students should not expect to be granted an Incomplete at the end of the semester. Although you may leave your exams/papers in my box in the English Department, I take no responsibility for papers that are lost or misdirected.
Blackboard Commentaries

Over the course of the semester, each student will be asked to compose a series of short critical comments on the course readings. The comments will be posted to the Blackboard Discussion Board in advance of our weekly meeting, and they will form a springboard into our in-class discussion.

Each student will write and post 5 commentaries over the course of the semester. Each commentary should run to no more than two double-spaced pages. Please paste your commentary directly into a Discussion Board text box; do not merely attach a file for downloading.

Although your ideas may be in their preliminary stages, your commentaries should represent your very highest level of thinking and writing. They should be tightly focused and well-organized. They should also engage closely with the text (in other words, there should be some page references and/or quotations). Given the brevity of the assignment, you should pay very close attention to sentence structure, grammar, and prose style. The commentaries should, in other words, be interesting, significant, precise, and highly refined.

Your commentary may offer a definitive argument—a sort of tentative thesis statement, if you will—or present a question or problem in the novel. It can, on other words, be either a sketch of a complete idea or a forum in which you begin to work through an idea. If you have particular questions you would like to pose to the group, this is the place to post them.

When you see your group listed on the syllabus, be sure you have your commentary ready to post to Blackboard by 10:00 pm Tuesday. You may continue to work on your commentary up until class the next night, when you will turn in the final draft to me. All members of the class will be expected to prepare for discussion by reading and thinking about the commentaries posed by their classmates in advance of each class meeting.  A successful classroom discussion is everyone’s responsibility. All members of the class are further invited to respond to the commentaries on Blackboard: there is no reason for the discussion to stop at the classroom door.
Semester Assignments

At our first meeting, each student will be assigned one of the course texts. This text will form the basis of all written assignments for the semester. Those assignments include

  • An annotated bibliography of recent scholarship on the assigned text. Students may elect to work together and to submit a group bibliography (the grade being shared equally by all members of the group). No joke: the bibliography will be due 1 April.
  •  A teaching packet, with detailed lesson plans, supplemental materials, writing assignments, reading quizzes, and test questions that might be used in teaching the text in an undergraduate course. The teaching packet will be due 15 April.
  • A well-researched, insightfully argued, brilliantly presented 10-15 page paper on the novel you have been assigned. The final paper will be due 29 April.

As generally useful resources, the bibliographies and teaching packets will be distributed to everyone in the class. This means that at the end of the semester, you will leave the course not only with a paper that may be the germ of an article or a dissertation chapter but also well-armed with research and instructional materials related to all seven of the novels on the syllabus.
Your teaching packet should be designed with multiple courses and audiences in mind. How might you teach the text in a survey of the novel? in a general education course? in an upper-division course on the Victorian novel? in a survey of Victorian literature? Think about how and under what circumstances you might need to teach this text, and put together a packet of materials that anticipates that need. How many class sessions will you devote to the text? Will you give reading quizzes? What sorts of supplemental materials might you assign your students to read (author biography, historical and cultural contexts, scholarship)? Are there websites or other online resources your students might find helpful? Are there film adaptations you might either show or offer as supplementary material? Are there visual images you might present to your students to illustrate particular issues? What questions might you give to your students on an exam or as essay prompts? What material would you need to review in order to teach the novel effectively? How would you prepare the novel for teaching (list of page references, outline of key concepts to cover, ideas for generating class discussion)? Every teaching packet must also include

  • A brief introduction that explains the contents of the packet and a rationale behind the design
  • An outline of lecture or discussion topics (a lesson plan, if you will)

You may also include—if you’re so inclined—PowerPoint presentations, more detailed lecture notes, sample handouts, or any other materials you might want to develop. Your goal here is to create a teaching unit that’s ready to go: what would you need if you were told that you’d be teaching that book tomorrow?

Your annotated bibliography should contain 8-10 articles, book chapters, and/or books that address your assigned texts. The scholarship you include should be relatively recent (published within the last 15-20 years). Encyclopedias, Wikipedia, and Spark Notes do not constitute scholarly research sources. Neither do The Explicator or Notes and Queries. You should select scholarship of the highest quality for this project. Begin each entry with an MLA-style bibliographic entry (in grading your bibliography I’ll consider how closely you follow MLA guidelines). Below the bibliographic entry, begin your annotation. Each annotation should run to no more than 500 words. Your annotation should record the central thesis of the article as well as the key points of the author’s argument. It should convey a sense of the methodology employed as well as your sense of the argument’s validity and usefulness. Use parenthetical citations to link your annotation to specific pages in the article (use page numbers only, and be sure to follow MLA rules for citations). I will evaluate your annotations according to their clarity, accuracy, and completeness.

Your final paper should advance a smart and significant argument about the novel you have been assigned. Your argument should engage with—but not merely echo—the recent scholarship you surveyed in your annotated bibliography. Think about the extent to which your argument draws upon, complicates, refutes, or extends the arguments of the scholars you have been reading. Don’t shy away from employing the more abstract theoretical concepts—push yourself to research and apply theories that have not yet been brought to bear on your assigned text. Your goal should be to produce a paper that could—with minor revision—be used as a conference paper or submitted to a journal or turned into a chapter in an MA thesis or PhD dissertation. You’ll have worked with this text for an entire semester: you should have some real insight to share. Be sure to cite your sources appropriately; consult the MLA Handbook for assistance.

Students are encouraged to begin work on their projects early in the semester. Read your assigned novel ASAP and get to the library to begin your survey of the critical literature. Set yourself a goal of reading and annotating at least one article or book chapter every week. Start thinking about how you might teach your novel and begin collecting essay prompts, quiz questions, and interesting supplemental materials to share with your students. Don’t wait until the last minute: get started now.

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