Erin O'Connor

English 753: Modernism's Roots

Spring 2001
Mondays 7-10

When Virginia Woolf wrote that "on or about December 1910, human character changed," she initiated an account of modernism that is still with us today. The idea of British literary modernism as a radical break with a mind-numbingly dull Victorian past has had such a hold over us that even contemporary accounts of the movement tend to minimize the nineteenth century's influence on early twentieth-century art. Some of these accounts depict modernism as springing up as if by magic--from nowhere (the Great War has been a great aid in justifying such originary narratives). Other accounts studiously contain the sprawling and unruly nineteenth century by displacing it: onto France, whose symbolist poets, impressionist painters, and experimental novelists can safely be seen as the respectably subversive ancestors of modernist innovation; or onto fin-de-siecle British aestheticism, whose decadent writers, painters, and personalities broke with mainstream Victorian culture in ways that enabled modernism to make an even bigger break later on. Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Pater, and Wilde are the patron saints of these familiar narratives, which have over time solidified into virtual truism. This course will work to unsettle that truism, tracing an alternative account of modernism's Victorian roots by focussing on the genre whose glaring absence from standard and even not-so-standard accounts of modernism's pre-history demands explanation: the Victorian novel. As the dominant artistic form in nineteenth-century Britain, and as the form that, more than any other, modernist writers loved either to denigrate or ignore, the Victorian novel poses pressing questions for British literary history as we know it. Over the course of the semester, it will be our collective mission to articulate and probe those questions.

Required Texts (available at Penn Book Center)

Charlotte Bronte, Villette
Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone
Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend
George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel
Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure
Henry James, Daisy Miller
Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Various additional readings, to be distributed along the way


One short paper due at mid-term (~10 pages)
A longer research paper due at the end of term (20-25 pages)
Lively class participation

Schedule of Readings

Jan 22 Strachey, Eminent Victorians

Jan 29 Bronte, Villette
Bronte's correspondence with George Henry Lewes
Woolf on Bronte

Feb 5  Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (first half)

Feb 12  Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Arnold, "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time"
Mayhew, from London Labour and the London Poor

Feb 19 Our Mutual Friend (second half)
Reviews and retrospectives by Stott and Lewes

Feb 26 Collins, The Moonstone
T.S. Eliot on Dickens and Collins

March 5 George Eliot, Daniel Deronda (first half)
Eliot, "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists"
 Eliot, "Natural History of German Life"

March 12 Spring Break

March 19 No Class: read, write, and research

March 21 PAPER DUE

March 26 Daniel Deronda (second half)
Woolf on Eliot

April 2   James, Daisy Miller
James "Art of Fiction"

April 9  Wilde, "The Decay of Lying"
Wilde,The Picture of Dorian Gray
Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

April 16 Hardy, Jude the Obscure
  Woolf on Hardy

April 23 Woolf, To the Lighthouse
  Forster, Aspects of the Novel