Refreshing My Reading Lists I: Victorian Novels

van-gogh-still-life-french-novelsOne of my plans for my upcoming sabbatical is to reconsider and possibly refresh my reading lists for courses I offer frequently. It may be that the reading and rereading I do confirms my usual selections, or that it gives me ideas for mixing things up a little, or that I get inspired to rethink my approach altogether–we’ll see! It isn’t that I’m dissatisfied or trying to fix anything in particular about these courses, which usually go very well. It’s just that book orders for the next year come due in the middle of term when I’m too busy to do this kind of exercise. I don’t want change for the sake of change, but I also don’t want to slide into complacency or let my classroom conversations stagnate.

First up for reconsideration are English 3031 and English 3032 (The 19th-Century British Novel from Austen to Dickens and from Dickens to Hardy). They replaced a full-year survey course on the novel that covered the 18th- and 19th century (that was one of the first courses I taught at Dalhousie and it was a lot of reading and a lot of fun!) and a full-year Honours seminar on the Victorian novel (also a lot of reading and a lot of fun!). Now they are are sandwiched in between other more or less period-specific fiction courses: The Novel to 1820 (“from Behn to Austen”) and Fiction of the Earlier 20th Century (not necessarily British) and British Literature of the Earlier 20th Century (not just the novel). In addition, we offer a range of genre-specific courses likely to include a fair amount of 19th-century British fiction, including Mystery & Detective Fiction, Gothic Fiction, Foundations of Science Fiction, and Children’s Literature. I also regularly offer a 4th-year seminar on sensation fiction.

Maclise DickensThis context explains the choices I typically make for the 19th-Century Fiction Austen-Dickens-Hardy courses: in our curriculum, there are other courses that focus on particular kinds of fiction from the period, so I stay away from works in those categories (such as Frankenstein or Dracula, for example, or Alice in Wonderland) that I know students will read elsewhere and focus primarily on realist, domestic, historical, or social problem novels. I start with Austen, but I tilt English 3031 towards the Victorians, rather than the Romantics, because they have their own classes; similarly, I end English 3032 with Hardy and (with regret) leave Forster and his fellow Edwardians to the later courses.

Over the years, it turns out I have taught 31 novels in these courses, in many different combinations. Here’s the complete list:

  • Austen: Pride and PrejudicePersuasion
  • Braddon: Lady Audley’s Secret (I have assigned Aurora Floyd in the sensation fiction class)
  • A. Brontë: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
  • C. Brontë: Jane Eyre, Villette
  • Collins: The Woman in White;  The Moonstone
  • Dickens: Bleak HouseLittle DorritA Tale of Two CitiesGreat ExpectationsHard Times;  David CopperfieldA Christmas Carol
  • George Eliot: Adam BedeFelix HoltSilas MarnerThe Mill on the FlossMiddlemarch (I have assigned both Romola and Daniel Deronda in graduate seminars but never in undergraduate courses)
  • Gaskell: CranfordMary BartonNorth and South
  • Gissing: The Odd Women
  • Hardy: Jude the ObscureTess of the d’Urbervilles
  • Scott: WaverleyThe Heart of Midlothian
  • Thackeray: Vanity Fair
  • Trollope: The WardenBarchester Towers (I have assigned He Knew He Was Right in an upper-level seminar but never in an undergraduate course, and also The Eustace Diamonds in a graduate seminar)

To be clear, this is not a list of all the books by these authors, or by 19th-century novelists, that I have read: it is just a list of the titles that I have assigned for our core undergraduate courses on the 19th-century British novel. (We have separate courses on 19th-century American fiction, and on Irish literature from 1700-1900.)

penguin-wutheringBesides books like Frankenstein that I know are covered frequently in other courses, probably the most obvious absence from this list is Wuthering Heights. I have read it more than once but never taught it, for the simple (if perhaps indefensible) reason that I like the Brontë novels I do teach much better and the maximum of five books per course that seems realistic to me is a zero-sum game. Also, my colleague Marjorie Stone, who loves Wuthering Heights, regularly offers an upper-level seminar on the Brontës. This winter is her last term in the department, however: her impending departure is another reason I am taking stock in this way. Wuthering Heights is (sigh) near the top of my “reread in 2019” list.

What alternatives might there be to other books on this list? There are many I’ve considered before and rejected, either from lack of interest or for logistical reasons. I can’t imagine choosing Agnes GreyThe ProfessorShirley, Sylvia’s Lovers, or Ruth, for example, over the books by those authors already on my list. Where the choice seems clear to me, I go with the best books. (Remember, it’s a zero-sum game.) I think Wives and Daughters is wonderful but it’s very long and I dare to assign only one very long novel per course: maybe one year Wives and Daughters will win this peculiar lottery, but that would mean no Vanity Fair, or no Bleak House, or no Middlemarch. That’s also the case with No Name and Armadale: I really enjoyed them, but they are very long and, for my purposes, The Woman in White is just fine. I would like to teach The Way We Live Now–but again, it would require balancing it out with shorter books across the rest of the term. This is always possible to do, but so far I haven’t felt that these other Very Long Books are worth displacing my favourites for.

oxford-draculaSo besides Wuthering Heights, what other alternatives am I contemplating? Well, to start with, I’m reconsidering the way I have always avoided Frankenstein and Dracula, as well as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray. For one thing, soon we’ll be down to one Romanticist in the department and it isn’t clear how often Gothic Fiction will be taught after that. For another, it has been a while since I read any of these novels and I’d like to see how they’d fit into (or disrupt) the discussions I usually have. There are Dickens novels I’ve never read (including Nicholas Nickleby and Dombey & Son) and ones I haven’t read in years (including Oliver Twist and Our Mutual Friend): especially since I assign Dickens in both 3031 and 3032, it would be nice to have more options. Gissing’s New Grub Street is on my re-read list: The Odd Women always goes over well, and New Grub Street seems very timely. It has been decades since I read The Mayor of CasterbridgeThe Return of the Native, or Far From the Madding Crowd: I should at least check if Tess and Jude really are my best options for Hardy. Much as I love Waverley, it is always a very hard sell; I’d like to give both The Bride of Lammermoor and Ivanhoe another look. I’ve only ever assigned Margaret Oliphant in a graduate seminar: I’d like to review at least Miss Marjoribanks, to see how it might go over in an undergraduate course. I haven’t read any Meredith, so I will probably give The Egoist a try. I’ve never read any Kipling, either; 2019 will be the year in which I finally read Kim.*

yonge-clever-womanThere’s another dimension that I need to give further thought to, and that’s which less canonical writers or genres I should work into these plans. I’ve made it this far without reading any novels by Bulwer Lytton or Disraeli or Charlotte Yonge, any “silver fork” novels or Newgate novels or, besides The Odd Woman, any ‘New Woman’ novels. I haven’t read Ouida or Marie Corelli or Amy Levy, or H. G. Wells or* …. but then, the list of books I have read is always (and always going to be) much shorter than the list of books I could have read. The challenge is always deciding which of those are books I really should have read. In the end it’s about defining purposes and drawing lines, which are always exercises in artificial precision. For my current fairly narrow purpose–refreshing the reading list for two undergraduate courses already defined by what they are not–the authors I’ve already identified as priorities are probably more than enough to take on, but if there’s a story about the 19th-century novel from Austen to Hardy (that is, roughly from 1815-1890) that you think I can’t tell, or could tell better, with the help of someone I seem likely to overlook, I’d be happy to know!


*If you are shocked at these gaps in my literary education, you should also know that for a long time my ‘Humiliation’ winner was The Heart of Darkness, but I did finally read that. I don’t think either The Egoist or Kim would win the game.

19 thoughts on “Refreshing My Reading Lists I: Victorian Novels

  1. Liz Mc2 December 29, 2018 / 6:33 pm

    Don’t we all have shocking gaps in our educations? I always feel I don’t “get” poetry and wish I’d had a teacher at some point who really helped me with that, but all my best experiences were in fiction classes.

    I know I have read The Egoist but I don’t remember it at all. I did read and love Diana of the Crossways in an undergrad class—it’s something of a New Woman novel and would fit well with a Bad Marriages class. Another Gissing I found really interesting is In the Year of Jubilee.

    I did read Disraeli; I think I might even have managed to read Sybil in two different classes. That and Charles Kingsley. I cannot imagine assigning those to undergrads! They aren’t exactly good novels, but they are interesting.

    I have done a semester-long “survey” of the 18th and (mostly) 19th century British novel, which of course is ludicrous. Five books is all you can really fit in, and which five do you choose to try to convey something of the scope of this field? It felt like an impossible task to choose, and inevitably the picture will be so very incomplete.

    • Rohan Maitzen December 30, 2018 / 10:50 am

      A one-semester survey of that kind is indeed ludicrous, although I suppose there’s a point at which you just accept that it’s a sampler and stop trying to pretend it’s any kind of big picture course.

      I’ve been looking around to see which of the books I’m looking into are even in print, since there’s no point settling on a great option to assign only to find it’s unavailable. Meredith does not seem to be well represented! Broadview has an edition of The Egoist which is one reason I thought I’d start there. Oxford still has an edition of Sybil so maybe I should give it a try, since I do often assign other ‘condition of England’ novels.

  2. Nat December 29, 2018 / 6:51 pm

    For what it’s worth, I’ve found that Wuthering Heights has worked very well for me, albeit in a course on the 19th century where my course thread is “realism vs romance” and we read quite a bit of Gothic-inflected stuff (Frankenstein, Dorian Gray). It proved a good way to pivot from the Romantics to the Victorians in that course.

    Waverley has been downright disastrous for me. In my redesigned Romantic fiction course, I teach only the first chapter, along with a couple of his short stories. I like Bride of Lammermoor but I’m not convinced that students will respond to it any better. I’ll be interested to hear if you go a different direction with Scott, and what success you have with it.

    • Rohan Maitzen December 30, 2018 / 10:54 am

      I keep trying with Waverley (you might have seen my posts about the ‘intervention’ I eventually did the last time around) and it often seems worth the effort once we get past it because it provides such a great touchstone for later novels. Which of his short stories do you teach? I’ve had pretty good results with “The Two Drovers” but it’s the only one I’ve tried.

      My impression is that Wuthering Heights is a student favorite. I just love Tenant and Jane Eyre so much (with Villette a close third) that I’ve been reluctant to make way for it. I can see that it would work really well for the kind of course you describe.

      • Nat December 30, 2018 / 6:15 pm

        My Romantic Fiction course spends a lot of time on the Gothic, and one of my areas of focus is the desire to use reason to contain and suppress the supernatural/irrational, so I teach “The Tapestried Chamber”, which uses a historical/rational frame, but does not “explain away” the supernatural, and “Wandering Willie’s Tale”, which is presented as a folk tale/tall tale but does offer a form of rational explanation at the end. I teach them together with Hogg’s “Brownie of the Black Haggs”, and all three tend to go over well (although this is likely because of their reasonable length as much as anything else).

  3. Gayla December 31, 2018 / 7:53 am

    Dombey and Son is wonderful! It’s my favorite “overlooked” Dickens novel and features his (in my opinion) best female chracter.

    • Rohan Maitzen December 31, 2018 / 11:09 am

      Oh, that’s good to know! I also haven’t read Martin Chuzzlewit but I don’t think I can add anything else to my plans, or at least any more monstrously long Dickens, so this makes me feel better about settling on D&S.

  4. Amateur Reader (Tom) December 31, 2018 / 10:47 am

    For some reason I really enjoyed your list and comments. Good vicarious fun, imagining reading these and re-reading those.

    I recently re-read New Grub Street and think it would teach well in many contexts, but it is so grim that you might want to switch to a relatively cheery Hardy novel. New Grub Street plus Jude, yikes. Adam Roberts had a good essay on the novel at Morphosis not so long ago.

    I have been thinking about re-reading The Egoist. It was a book group failure, long ago, I think because most of the great scenes and pleasures of the novel are towards the middle and end. Maybe a bit of a slog early on. But the great scenes and pleasures are there.

    The old Norton critical edition is outstanding, by the way. The Robert Adams essay on the novel is a model.

    • Rohan Maitzen December 31, 2018 / 3:31 pm

      Maybe it’s for the same reason that this was a cheerful post to write – as you say, it’s a chance to recall old favorites and imagine pleasures to come!

      A novel that makes Hardy look cheerful, eh? Hmmm. Thanks for the tip about Adam’s post, which I’d read at the time but forgotten: it is (of course) excellent.

      Perhaps we could (re)read The Egoist around the same time and trade thoughts. At any rate, I will give you a heads up when I seem likely to start it and we can see. I always like to know what you think about things I’m reading.

  5. banff1972 December 31, 2018 / 4:42 pm

    FWIW I loved Heart of the Midlothian when I took that year-long version of your course all those years ago. Not an easy sell, I’m sure, but it’s way better than Waverley.

    I’m intrigued by all these Gissing titles.

    I recently found a nice used copy of a Penguin Classics Egoist, so let me know if you do read it. But I have learned I am much more interested in the idea of reading 19th century novels than actually reading them…

    • Rohan Maitzen December 31, 2018 / 8:10 pm

      I honestly don’t think I’ve read Heart of Midlothian since then!

      You and 19thC novels = me and many of the NYRB-type books that look great but feel very flat to me when I actually start them! Which probably explains why our teaching / research lives took different directions. And yet we find overlapping enthusiasms nonetheless (Fallada!).

      • banff1972 January 3, 2019 / 3:09 pm

        Well put! (For me at least, there’s always that tension between the reader I want to be and the reader I am.) But don’t get me wrong, I like plenty of 19th C novels. I do, however, find it hard to sink into their rhythms, and although it embarrasses me to say it I find their syntax difficult.

        Anyway, in my memory Midlothian is really interesting about outsiders and insiders, and ideas of cultural authenticity. Is it too long for your class these days?

        • Rohan Maitzen January 3, 2019 / 5:10 pm

          I took it off the shelf today, just to remind myself what it’s like. It doesn’t look that long at first but it turns out to have a very small font in my old OUP edition. Still, these are courses in which I regularly assign Middlemarch, Bleak House, and Vanity Fair, so length as such is not disqualifying. The question would be whether it is so long it has to displace one of these. Usually I assign 3 or 4 novels in the 400-500 page range, 1 at most in the 800-900 page range, and one that is either lighter (Lady Audley) or shorter (Cranford or Silas Marner etc.). Tom is right about the Strong Female Character angle! (But I think Waverley is both brisker and funnier.)

          • banff1972 January 3, 2019 / 7:59 pm

            Maybe replace Vanity Fair with Midlothian? (Saying that because that’s the only novel I couldn’t finish in that class. *Hangs head*)

          • Rohan Maitzen January 3, 2019 / 8:58 pm

            Definitely not making curricular choices based on that particular failure! (As you know, I think VF is great.)

  6. Amateur Reader (Tom) January 3, 2019 / 4:06 pm

    Yes, let’s read the Meredith together. Whenever is handy for you will be fine, unless I am trotting the globe. I only now see that I mentioned essays by Adam Roberts and Robert Adams, but those are their names, what can be done.

    I think Midlothian and Old Mortality are Scott’s best novels, of the seven I’ve read, but do not have any idea how they would teach. I imagine OM would be tough going. Midlothian at least has the strongest Strong Female Character in British literature.

    • banff1972 January 3, 2019 / 7:59 pm

      Are you going to be globetrotting, Tom?

    • Amateur Reader (Tom) January 3, 2019 / 9:10 pm

      Yes, but plans are uselessly vague at this point, no help with coordinating reading. Eh, Meredith is public domain; I can read it anywhere, right?

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