I’m putting together a syllabus for a general course on the Victorian novel, and am finding it difficult to decide what 5 or 6 novels to include. This syllabus is for a job application, so it is a course that I’d like to teach someday, rather than one that I will actually be teaching soon. I need to keep it general, but have decided to include a broad focus on representations of the family, especially alternative families (surrogate parents, siblings living with in-laws, adults living with parents, etc). I’m hoping that focusing on the decisions young adults had to face – marry or live with my parents, live with my parents or move in with my married sibling and his or her family, marry my cousin or someone outside of my family – will appeal to my future students, who lead radically different lives but are roughly the same age as the protagonists when they must make these difficult decisions.

Despite this thematic focus, I also have to ask, what are the key Victorian novels students should encounter in an introductory (second-year) course? And, will they actually read the longer novels I assign? Over at Novel Readings, Rohan Maitzen asked her readers what single nineteenth-century novel she should include in her British Literature Since 1800 class. I don’t have to pick just one novel, but am similarly thinking about what texts are truly representative Victorian novels. So far, I have come up with the following choices: Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1860), Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1860), George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-2), George Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893) and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895). I think this is likely too much reading for a single semester course, so might need to pare down my choices. And I am unsure about Middlemarch for an entry-level class like this. I struggled to finish it as an undergraduate, though it is one of my favourite novels. Should I try to get through it, even if I lose some students? Are there other novels you would include?

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10 thoughts on “An Embarrassment of Riches…

  1. I think that Great Expectations and The Odd Women are great choices for your thematic focus. As for Eliot, have you thought about choosing a slimmer novel like, say, Adam Bede? The Poyser household, the Bede household, and even Dinah’s choice to live away from her family, would be rich for talking about familial living arrangement.

    1. Great suggestion, Jen. I love Adam Bede (and remember enjoying it as a student) and I think it might be less daunting for students than Middlemarch. My only concern is that leaves a big gap between 1860 and 1893 — novels from the 1870s and 1880s always seem to be short-changed in Victorian courses, don’t they? Schreiner’s The Story of An African Farm (1883) would be great for discussing families but it doesn’t seem to be a representative “Victorian” novel because of its setting.

  2. I think Jen’s suggestion of Adam Bede is a good one. It’s a shame, but a novel like Middlemarch is just too long and complicated for a second-year student. I’ve taught Dickens’s Dombey and Son to undergraduates before, and it didn’t go very well solely because of its length. Middlemarch isn’t as long as Dombey, but it’s certainly more complicated (while still being over 700 pages in length), so I imagine students would have a tough go with it.

    I think all of your other choices are excellent. For Hardy, you could even go with Far From the Madding Crowd or The Mayor of Casterbridge, or even Tess. Virtually any Hardy would do, given your course theme.

  3. What are the great novels of the 1870s? Middlemarch, certainly. But I always have a difficult time reminding myself of other representative texts of the decade, even though I know there are some great ones. Collins has some decent works that would fit your course theme, but I just don’t think they’re the best of literature, especially when compared to Middlemarch.

    A Hardy novel from the l1870s might work in this instance, should you want to ensure a broad decade by decade coverage after making the switch to Adam Bede.

  4. Thanks for these suggestions!

    And Daniel, I think your Hardy suggestions might just solve my problem of having no text from the 1870s-80s.

  5. Daniel, I posted the above comment before reading your second post, but it’s clear that we were thinking the same thing.

    I wonder, what is it about literature in the 1870s and 1880s that makes it difficult to find the “riches” I refer to in my title? Or, does Middlemarch just dominate that period to such an extent that we’ve forgotten the others? I suppose, as you point out, Hardy is the great exception to this rule. And maybe Gissing (though I must admit I’ve only read his later fiction)?

  6. Good point Gregory and Amateur Reader: Silas Marner is shortest of all and is really interesting from an alternative-family angle.

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