Victorian literature

Old Belgian river station on the Congo River, 1889 courtesy of Wikipedia

Arguing about racism in Heart of Darkness

“Any way of stimulating open and honest debate is helpful as I, for one, see the argument as part of your own process of understanding, allowing you to concede fixed early positions as a debate progresses”


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

Like other pages in this area of the website, these pages (which concentrate on narrative culture in a broad sense) seek to complement the wealth of scholarly and teaching resources available to the teacher. Naturally, programme and module leaders will make their own choices about texts, anthologies and student support reading. The orientation of these pages (and the growing body of resources to which they link) is to ‘think the subject pedagogically’. University teachers are professionally attentive to the body of scholarly subject matter. But we simultaneously need to attend to how the subject might come to be known, and where learners have got to in their own journeys.

A triangle of demands

As intermediaries, we have a responsibility to create the conditions for passage between cultures and stages of knowledge. In our role as teachers and curriculum makers we need to weigh up:

  • The demands of the material: what we as scholars believe students need to know in the interests of knowledge and cultural memory (and without presupposing that all our students will go on to become scholars of the subject);
  • The capacities and capabilities of our students: what, in terms of knowledge, skills, or aptitudes they would need in order to benefit from what we can offer; how they read; where they are now in their own educational narrative;
  • The opportunities and constraints of available resources: the whole gamut – texts, libraries, the web, the timetable, the size of module groups, the available teaching spaces, the level of sympathetic support you might get from other colleagues.

Given both the overwhelming scale of the extant Victorian archive, and the characteristic length and tempo of texts, many contemporary students are likely to find themselves at sea in approaching the period. The era is in any case likely to feel a very long way off to people born after about 1980, despite Margaret Thatcher’s vaunted recourse to self-help and ‘Victorian values’. The question underlying these pages is how we can assist our students in developing their own confidence and curiosity while simultaneously doing justice to texts and histories.