ENG 243 The Victorian Novel

Michael E. Gorra, T Th 10:30 AM-11:50 AM

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness..."

So Charles Dickens writes of the French Revolution in the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities, and then runs the description on for another dozen lines before concluding that in many ways that era, sixty years before his own, was nevertheless like his own in its mixture of good and ill, folly and wisdom, and above all in its conviction of its own uniqueness. That's the way it is with the great Victorian novels. They are utterly of their own times, rooted in the debates and struggles and beliefs of their moment, and yet they are books of our times as well. They speak to us and about us, as the French Revolution did to Dickens. We're going to read six of them, and I hope you'll find that about one thing Dickens was entirely wrong: for the reader, these books really do present the best of times. No other body of English literature, with the possible exception of Shakespeare, has given so much pleasure to so many people for so long.

We'll begin with Dickens himself, with Bleak House. It is the weirdest and boldest of his novels, with its narration split evenly between a godlike all-seeing omniscience and the first-person voice of its heroine, Esther Summerson. It's one of his funniest books-- and yet it's also his richest exploration of the London depths. Charlotte Bronte's Villette isn't so well known as Jane Eyre, but its main character is even spikier and she speaks to us from a greater need. Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South gives us what its title implies, a story of two Englands, rich and poor, industrial and agricultural; a book that asks if a divided nation can be made as one. Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone has been described as the first and greatest of English detective novels, a book that's got robbery, and murder, and opium, and empire going for it, along with hypnosis and quicksand and desperate passion. George Eliot's Middlemarch is, for me, simply the greatest of all English novels, a book about science and faith and money and the life of a country town; a book that winds four different plots together into one. Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd is a story of rural life-- think sheep and dogs and horses-- and though Hardy's novels usually end with everybody unhappy or dead, this one's a (partial!) exception.

I expect the class to run as a directed discussion, with some moments of lecture to provide historical context of one form or another, but lots of give and take. The writing will depend on the enrollment-- but probably three 5-page papers and a take-home final.