Enlightenment to Modernity

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”: so wrote Charles Dickens about France during its revolution, but he was also thinking of his own era, the so-called Victorian period marked by the long reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). The Victorians were the first in the world to encounter the seismic shifts and disorienting upheavals of becoming modern, and, as such, they have a lot to teach us, their descendants. They produced a literature of remarkable richness, focused on the conflicts of industrial society, the implications of geological and biological discoveries (Darwin and “deep time”), the corruption of a traditional class system, the urge for democracy, the problematic status of women, the question of race and racial difference – and much else. Major writers include Dickens, George Eliot, the Brontes, Tennyson, Gaskell, Trollope, Thackeray, Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland), Arthur Conan Doyle (the Sherlock Holmes creator), Rudyard Kipling. This class will examine works by a selection of the above, in addition to some important non-fiction works of the period, such as Henry Mayhew’s pioneering social reportage London Labour and the London Poor, Isabella Beeton’s bible for bourgeois housewives, The Book of Household Management, and John Stuart Mill’s influential argument on the necessity of free self-development, On Liberty. Students will give 1-2 brief oral reports and take two exams covering the readings and class discussions.