Victorian literature: Challenges

Victorian literature

Detail from 'The Railway Station' by William Powell Frith, RA courtesy of Royal Holloway University of London

Detail from ‘The Railway Station’ by William Powell Frith, RA courtesy of Royal Holloway University of London

Our challenge throughout is to create footholds for students in a period and a literature which (given the right sort of help early on) most will come to find immensely rewarding. In these pages we seek to address some of the common problems encountered along the way, and suggest possible directions in which to look for answers. In doing so, we have to face out the paradox that the web (which may in some ways have exacerbated impatience with long-drawn-out reading) has simultaneously made available a wealth of resources which until recently would only have been available to the most determined scholars.

Another sub-text of these pages is the need to pay attention to an unintended outcome of the energetic nature of current literary and historical research. While strongly in favour of ‘research-led teaching’, we note the paradox that much research over the past generation has had the effect of creating vigorous micro-specialisms. Yet the vast majority of our students will not be going to become specialists. As teachers, we may find ourselves having to think through ways of helping students attain larger over-views without losing the benefits of exposure to pockets of dense knowledge.

Students may flounder and sink in long novels and poems

Certainly the tempo of a Victorian novel takes some getting used to. Help students establish from the beginning a work and reading rhythm, using reading logs / diaries. It may sometimes be possible to some small extent to recreate the experience of serial publication as a medium for managing curriculum, particularly if you arrange the syllabus to alternate longer and shorter texts. Joanna Moody’s case study ‘Studying Literary Texts: The Learning Process’ helpfully thinks through ways of supporting the reading process. Consider providing simple tools for mapping extended narratives (see for example the T3 entry on Waterland. The simple media of spidergrams and maps can be extended into more sophisticated activity in the VLE or Wiki. Studying a long novel in its context is the subject of T3 entries on Shirley and on The Small House at Allington.

Palgrave /English Subject Centre Teaching the New English Series: (ed. ) Andrew Maunder and Jennifer Phegley ,Teaching Nineteenth Century Fiction

Teaching the New English Series: (ed. ) Andrew Maunder and Jennifer Phegley , Teaching Nineteenth Century Fiction

Students may find the ethos, conventions, and language of Victorian texts alienating

Though on the other hand it could be argued that the realist novels of the nineteenth century are more straightforward as reading experiences than either what precedes them in the eighteenth century – or indeed in the modernist novel to follow.

As teachers, we do need to help students engage with difficult discourses, and to remember how slow a process that can be. But in the end, there’s probably nothing for it but practice, and the last thing we want as teachers is to create the impression that we ourselves think the stuff is beyond our students. (That way lies a spiral of diminishing expectations.) We can’t take up the subject of adaptations here, but creative critical techniques may sometimes provide the opportunity for students to explore what such apparently digressive genres and languages might be doing. See for example the case study Text/Play/Space which takes as its starting place the issue of inciting students to engage with a long novel like Bleak House both face-to-face and online. Another example (though this time concerning poetry) is the re-writing of Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover.

It may help to open up to students the way in which the Victorian canon has changed. (For example the emergence in recent years of the Sensation Novel as an accepted element in the curriculum.) In this connection, exploration of the unstable and shifting relations between popular culture and what have come to be treated as ‘the classics’ might be a helpful approach. Many of the resources suggested here provide ways of re-framing literary text within the energies (both innovative and conformist) of popular culture. The project ‘Sam Weller Learns to Read’, is suggestive here, as also are projects on the press and illustration noted below.

Overall, the sociability of Victorian literary culture surely provides a gift for teachers in a digital age. As Matthew Rubery remarks, for ‘obvious reasons, it is difficult to dislodge in student minds the modern conception of fiction as a predominantly solitary recreation as opposed to a communal pastime’. His Plot Casting project explores an approach with implications beyond its immediate field of sensation fiction.

Students will need help with context, historical or cultural

A classic solution to the contextual problem is the informative lecture, with or without PowerPoint. The downside, is that handed-down historical context (lectures, powerpoints, handouts) may be experienced as inert information or objectified material suitable for turning into ‘factual’ notes. Thus it reinforces the ‘monumental’ or dutiful approach. Perhaps you could complement lectures in an early seminar session where you explore the problem, and invite students to collect and bring in materials whose validity / interest / relevance can then be discussed in class. Think of it as a ‘time traveller’ activity. Students are sent away to library or web in small groups and told to come back with five items that they think an imaginary time traveller would find most surprising if transported back to the early Victorian period. A period like the Victorian does tend to get taught ‘contextually’. This then raises questions about what is the relation between ‘background’, ‘history’ and literary texts? . Students could/should be invited to consider how they are reading literary texts in relation to the contextual information they also learn.

There are endless ways in which textual readings might be immersed in connection-making contextual activity. None of them obviate the need for wider or solid historical reading. The object is to energise those readings through exploration of culture as activity — genres and cultural forms not as inert objects, but as invented solutions to perceived problems. See for an example the T3 entry on Oliver Twist.

Invite students to become aware of townscapes and buildings. Many universities are located in close proximity to Victorian buildings and the remnants of Victorian planning. The contemporary timetable and workload may not favour leading guided walks, but given the number of available web guides, students could be set up in groups to explore and bring back digital pictures of their findings to share in class or in the VLE. The point is that walking streets that are still recognisably Victorian, like handling Victorian books, will immeasurably enrich their sense of a culture. Take them to an art gallery with a good collection of Victorian paintings if there is one in the vicinity. Show them Victorian architecture, Neo Gothic, etc. A Digital Archive of Architecture provides one starting place, as does Victorian Station. See also the overlays provided for Scottish towns by the National Library of Scotland.

Hum_box_LogoIt is well worth keeping your eye on the resources being added to the Open Educational Resource site Humbox. A relevant recent example is Will Slocombe’s power point lecture ‘Victorian Law and (Dis)Order’ on Victorian Crime and its influence on the fiction of the period.

Many teachers of the period profit from varying the modality to visual narrative. The prevalence of narrative painting can be exploited for classroom work and for students’ own exploration. (See, for example, the posts on Rosie’s blog ‘Teaching the Pre-Raphaelites online’.) While obvious intertextual connections can be made (‘The Lady of Shallott’ is but one example of many), to invite creative readings of a painting like Holman Hunt’s ‘The Awakening Conscience’ or John Everett Millais’s ‘The Order of Release’ can focus attention on the structure and temporality of narrative in provoking a collective unpacking of the image. Thousands of Pre-Raphaelite images can be found on the web, and Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery’s Pre-Raphaelite online resource — provides a marvellous starting place, as does the Rossetti Archive. Powerpoint is now an invaluable aid to teaching how to ‘read’ narrative paintings.

Multimedia. Invite students to work with visual images, including the increasingly accessible illustrations from novels or from the Victorian press (e.g.Illustrated London News; and various agencies are at work digitising Punch) in the context of discussion of visual adaptation. Draw on projects which are seeking to make Victorian periodicals available in student-friendly ways. Examples on this site are Dickens’ Household Words and ‘Online Learning and Victorian and Edwardian Periodical Press’ – this project was written up as a Newsletter article, ‘The Wrong Dora Russell. Invaluable here are the Nineteenth Century Online Newspapers Collection (accessible from within universities) and the pioneering Nineteenth-Century Serials Edition.

Moving in and out of visuals and words, you might also be able to take advantage of students’ own interest in Gothic (or even in Tolkien) in opening doors to nineteenth-century medievalism / archaism. (Plates from Pugin’s Contrasts are now available on the web.) The post-Romantic quest for re-enchantment could be a working paradigm that enables students to explore through architecture, children’s literature, pastoral, or painting responses to a world felt to be in the grip of de-humanising forces. Group activities could lead onwards to individual projects or dissertations on Ruskin, Morris or other imagined or transformed worlds. (See ‘News from Virtual Nowhere’ on Rosie’s blog.)