Enabling Undergraduate Research – In Search of ‘The Angel in the House’: Women and Domestic Culture in the Nineteenth Century

Linking teaching & Research, Literacy & Writing skills, Romantic literature, Student experience, Victorian literature



Dr Ellen McWilliams
Department of English Literature and Cultural Studies
Bath Spa University


This case study offers an account of a research-based undergraduate option offered in Year 2 at Bath Spa University. The project introduces students to primary research in a number of different settings; under the guidance of a supervisor, students work in special collections and archives and develop an inquiry into a particular literary period or genre. The study focuses, in particular, on one strand of the module – ‘In Search of “The Angel in the House”: Women and Domestic Culture in the Nineteenth Century’ – which supports students in exploring representations of domestic life in literature and print culture in the period.

Background / Context

The case study will explore the possibilities for supporting primary research at undergraduate level by examining one strand of an English Research Project option offered to second-year English students at Bath Spa University in 2008-2009. The module introduces students to primary research via a range of literature and social history projects and supports them in identifying and defining their own research projects. Given the recent rise of interest in the place of research activities on the undergraduate curriculum, as reflected in Mick Healey and Alan Jenkins’s report for the Higher Education Academy ‘Developing Undergraduate Research and Inquiry’ (June 2009), this account of undergraduate research in action foregrounds how the English student can develop research competencies that enable independent learning and encourage students to see themselves as part of a larger academic and scholarly community. Looking mainly at North American models, Healey and Jenkins offer a full account of the value of research at undergraduate level and the different forms that it can take. Their work is built on the premise ‘that all undergraduate students in all higher education institutions should experience learning through, and about, research and inquiry. In undergraduate research, students learn and are assessed in ways that come as close as possible to the experience of academic staff carrying out their disciplinary research’ (3). A number of recent studies promote the value of integrating first hand experience of primary research into the undergraduate curriculum. In Research and Teaching: Beyond the Divide, Angela Brew suggests that while research-based learning enriches students’ engagement with the discipline it also has a value that extends to life after graduation in that it raises confidence and fosters professionalism amongst participating students; she makes the point that ‘as they learn what is involved in doing research and learn how to do it, they must learn how to do it ethically and responsibly; that is, professionally’ (57). While most analyses of undergraduate research to date have been based on North American case studies, the Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research at the University of Warwick supports undergraduate research in the UK. As well as publishing pedagogical studies and reports, it hosts a journal of undergraduate research, which is double-blind peer reviewed and, according to the journal’s call for papers, publishes work ‘based in any subject or discipline as long as the author(s) are undergraduate students’.

Activities / Practice

It was with these pedagogically valuable points of contact between academic research and student learning in mind, that the Year 2 English Research Project at Bath Spa University came into being. The module gives students an opportunity to work in areas of special interest to academic staff in the English department and particular emphasis is placed on working with primary sources. It includes strands such as ‘Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing’, ‘Mapping London’, ‘Working in Archives: London Life, 1057-2006’, and ‘Collating and Cataloguing Early Printed Books’.

‘In Search of “The Angel in the House”: Women and Domestic Culture in the Nineteenth Century’

On the strand in question – ‘In Search of “The Angel in the House”: Women and Domestic Culture in the Nineteenth Century’ – students research the roles and responsibilities of women in nineteenth-century domestic life using a combination of primary and secondary sources. A bibliography of secondary reading is provided, which introduces students to relevant theoretical and critical debates about private and public life in the nineteenth century, and this offers a starting point for the development of the student’s own interest in a particular area or topic. Students are also encouraged to forge links to their own knowledge of nineteenth-century literary texts and, where appropriate, integrate readings of the same. In setting the parameters of their research project, students are encouraged to examine and, where necessary, challenge popular conceptions about gender roles and family life in the nineteenth century and address questions relating to courtship, marriage, household management, sexuality, child rearing, female education, fashion, manners, and etiquette. Where the course differs from conventional undergraduate teaching is that students are also required to work closely with popular magazines, conduct manuals, and letters and diaries from the period, many of which are available from online resources such as Defining Gender, 1450-1910 and Nineteenth-Century British Newspapers. Defining Gender contains extracts from issues of popular publications such as The Lady’s Magazine and can be searched to seek out references to specific aspects of domestic life at particular moments in the nineteenth century. As well as using online resources, participating students are directed to mainstream guides to the successful management of the middle class home such as Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) and well-known tracts on femininity such as John Ruskin’s ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’ (1865). As with all of the strands on the English Research Project, students have to develop an idea for a project independently and, based on the feedback of their supervisor, refine it as necessary.

Student Research: Strategy and Support

A key feature of this module generally, and of this option strand in particular, is the way in which it introduces students to primary research and to working independently in research libraries and archives, both local and national. Students across the various strands of the module attend a series of seminars and workshops that are integral to getting the projects underway, to identifying relevant research archives, and to working with materials from those collections. In addition to sessions on advanced literature searching, students are also given an introduction to working with early or rare books and manuscripts. Having been given an induction to working in archives, using the Bath Spa University Special Collections as a case study, students set about identifying archives and libraries most useful to their project. Students work variously at the British Library, the Guildhall Library, and the London Metropolitan Library. Students working on the ‘Angel in the House’ strand in 2008-2009 also spent time at the Women’s Library in London and at the Victoria and Albert Museum. In addition, they were provided with guidance specific to the strand under discussion about how to investigate and make the most of local archival material, such as the collection of Victoriana at Bath Central Library and resources at the Bath Fashion Museum (which has a permanent exhibition of nineteenth-century dress). Bath Central Library has a substantial collection of ephemera and manuscript material that relates to etiquette and manners in the period and also houses a number of early editions of conduct manuals and guides in the Local History Collection, many of which proved to be of interests to students on this strand.


In the early stages of the project, working within a set of guidelines, students negotiate the written form of assessment with their supervising tutor and also negotiate the learning outcomes. These outcomes are discussed with and approved by individual supervisors and referred to in the marking and assessment of the project. As a final assessment, students present their findings in the form of a written project offering a full account of their research; this might usefully be backed-up by relevant artefacts, images, exhibition catalogues and so on. In 2008-2009 projects included a study of the representations of domestic servants in nineteenth-century literature and journalism; an illustrated and annotated portfolio on attitudes to fashion and dress in Victorian periodicals; a study of courtship etiquette in the Victorian period; and a report on the ‘Corset Controversy’ and cultural and literary responses to the same. The latter project consisted of a chronicle of the material production of corsets from the early nineteenth century onwards as well as an analysis of medical reporting on the corset and what this reveals about literary and cultural discourses of the female body in the nineteenth century. The second part of the assessment takes the form of a mini-conference in which students present the findings of their research to their peers and to members of staff supervising projects on the module. As well as outlining their key lines of inquiry and surveying their findings, students present a reflective account of the research methods used and skills gained or honed. This latter dimension of the project links directly the potential of research-based learning of this kind to underpin personal development planning, and to do so in ways that are meaningful to the subject.


In encouraging students to think of themselves as researchers, the module supports a different kind of working relationship between student and tutor compared to the typical taught option. Research-based learning of this kind is most meaningful when it is linked to the research interests of supervising staff but is driven by the student’s independent inquiry. It encourages students to break new ground in their developing interests in the subject, but also has a practical developmental value. In foregrounding a number of skills that might fall under the employability umbrella, educational theorist Carolin Kreber goes some way towards making the potentially alien aspects of the employability agenda in Higher Education compatible with student achievement in the humanities; her list includes: ‘self-management, critical analysis, creativity, ethical sensitivity, and the capacity to act morally, solve problems, resolve conflict, make decisions, negotiate, work in teams, and to work cross-culturally’ (7). This was very clearly reflected in the experience of students on the Research Project as time management, working to deadlines, planning research visits and consulting with archivists and librarians were central to student progress. Being given the opportunity to present their findings in an environment that emulated the academic conference gave students the opportunity to engage in reflective discussion with their peers as well as with academic staff teaching on the module. All of these results resonate with the benefits of exploring the relationship between teaching and research, a number of which are outlined by Andrew Castley in his essay ‘Professional Development Support to Promote Stronger Teaching and Research Links’:

It raises students’ awareness of the research-oriented ways in which they are learning (referred to as meta-learning); it makes students feel part of a community, in which research and teaching are seen as part and parcel of the same endeavour; it increases motivation of students through active or, inquiry-based, learning; it increases staff motivation by achieving synergies between their teaching and learning. (26)

A final pair of related benefits of this module are: it serves as valuable preparation for the final-year dissertation as it involves a similar process of forward planning and working independently under the guidance of a supervisor; also, it helps students to develop their interests in new and original areas and to identify research fields of particular interest to them, and so can serve as a valuable precursor to postgraduate study. Research-based options of this kind, then, have both the capacity to foster students’ confidence and independent thinking and to aid the development of academic-related skills in ways that harmonise with the primary interests and concerns of the subject.

The Student Experience

Representative Student Comments:

In summary, this project was an enjoyable and beneficial experience and it has uncovered areas of interest that I would like to revisit. I have learned the lessons required for my dissertation with regard to reducing the content and providing quality and not quantity!’

‘Having to get in touch with an institution outside of the University seemed daunting at first but the staff were really helpful at putting you in touch with people that could help with the project.
The module was very challenging as the project outcome was different to the standard essay that English students are used to and using different types of software to achieve the final product was also quite daunting. But it was very satisfying to overcome such issues and have a concrete artefact or piece of work to show for the project at the end.’

‘The project as a whole made me think a lot more about the amount of information and the type of information it is possible to access. I’d not used microfilm before I went to Bristol Central Library, and although my trip to the British Library was not as successful as I had hoped, it was a learning experience which has prepared me well for the research I’m doing in my third year, especially for my dissertation.’

‘Thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to conduct a research project on a smaller scale than the final dissertation.
There was a good balance of supervision and contact time – enough to keep us on track and remind us that we were part of a group who were all attempting a similar piece of work.’

Bibliographical references

  • Brew, Angela.Research and Teaching: Beyond the Divide. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006.
  • Castley, Andrew J. ‘Promoting Stronger Teaching and Research Links.’ Exploring Research-Based Teaching. Vol. 107 (Fall 2006): 23-31.
  • Kreber, Carolin. ‘Supporting Student Learning in the Context of Diversity, Complexity and Uncertainty.’ The University and its Disciplines: Teaching and Learning Within and Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries. Ed. Carolin Kreber. New York: Routledge, 2009. 3-18.

Online Resources