Instructor of Record, Duke University
English 345: Nineteenth-Century British Novel
“England is not the jewelled isle of Shakespeare’s much-quoted message, nor is it the inferno … More than either it resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. It is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories…”
-George Orwell, “England Your England”
Stereotypically described, “a rather stuffy family” tends to drive the plots of nineteenth-century Britain’s most famous novelists — Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Brontës, and Wilkie Collins (to name a few). Yet, as Orwell hints in his memorialization of Victorian stock characters, the nineteenth century did not only novelize marriage plots or petty domestic disputes. Cupboards “bursting with skeletons,” indeed, cloud the supposed bliss of the typical family. From marriage markets to evil twins to horrifying mysteries, British narratives show the precariousness of the nuclear family. The Victorian family, nevertheless, became a location to celebrate English values, becoming not only the main drama of the novel form but also illustrating how the national community was imagined. As England’s greater empire infiltrated British narratives more prominently in the later part of the century, novels thought about these problems from within the domestic sphere. In this class, we will consider major novel genres of the period (gothic, sensation/mystery, romance), in conjunction with contemporaneous non-fiction selections, in order to track the tension between England forming a national, exclusionary community and seeking ties with the greater globe.
In examining novels from the beginning of the nineteenth century (Pride and Prejudice) all the way up to the end of the Victorian period (Dracula), we will be able to trace how thought rapidly developed and shifted in less than a century. How did the relationships within the family change throughout this period? To imagine itself as a nation with limits, did something have to be omitted from the ideal Victorian family? When the family becomes regulated to the background or transformed into something fantastical, in novels such as Dracula, does this change how we imagine a national community? By using how the nineteenth century defined the family as a starting point in our own scholarship, we will think about the problems of the period, including gender, empire, and citizenship.
English 90: Mystery Fiction
“Come, Watson, come! … The game is afoot.”
-Sherlock Holmes, “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange”
Sherlock Holmes, perhaps the world’s most famous detective, views his mysteries as a “game” — connoting both a competitive sport and also a prey that must be hunted. The whodunit mystery, taking its modern form in the Victorian Era, captures this double meaning of playing “the game” — detectives both hunt for the perpetrator of the crime and, willingly or not, compete — against rivals, against time, against peril — to solve the puzzle. In fact, the whodunit has literally been realized as a game through activities such as murder mystery dinner parties and the famous Clue. But, if we’ve seen these puzzles over and over again, what about them remains engaging? Is not the writer, in some ways, competing against the ever-careful reader in an effort to trick, surprise, and delight?
In this course, we will begin by engaging the plot structure of the whodunit to examine how detective fiction has evolved from its recognized roots in Victorian England to the present. By paying close attention to elements that developed in early mysteries — such as the clue, detective, and suspect — we will develop a sense of what specifically characterizes the mystery genre. Oddly, however, since its conception, the mystery’s structure and elements have not been isolated to one genre but used to kick-start the plot of others, such as noir and fantasy. What can we learn by considering, for example, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie novels alongside Harry Potter or superheroes? What does it matter that mystery fiction’s elements continually become reused in the most unlikely ways? And how does this interactive form affect us still as readers and scholars? As we “investigate” this genre, we may be able to solve the case of why we still find the mystery so sensational.
Writing 101: Are Novels Still Novel?
Novels have been a staple of popular culture in the western world since at least the eighteenth-century — but why do we still study and consume them for entertainment? In this class, we will examine how a medium hundreds of years old remains popular with the public and how it has maintained its “novelty.” What does the novel help us understand that another form (poetry, film, critical theory) cannot? Has the novel form changed, and, if so, how do we classify novels? Does the novel have universal characteristics or does each novel reinvent itself? This course will investigate these questions that literary scholars debate and use them as an entry point into the practice of academic writing. The class will be divided into three sections, which will explore novels from radically different genres and time periods. We will use the novels The Time Machine (a Victorian science-fiction novel), Watchmen (a Cold War dystopian-superhero graphic novel), and The Bone Clocks (a 2014 “genre-bending,” dramatic-fantasy novel) to ground each section.
We will also incorporate selections of poetry, critical theory, and film to help situate our arguments and give us a vocabulary to examine the novel as a form. The first unit will culminate in a close reading essay (3-4 pages) that will go through a peer-review and revision process. At the end of the second unit, students will write a second essay (5-7 pages) that will employ outside sources in order to develop an original argument. This essay will also go through peer editing and an optional revision. The final assignment in the course will be to write a research essay (8-10 pages), which will take up a critical issue related to the course. In preparation for this final paper, the student will write a proposal to present to the class for feedback. As we think with these works, we will consider genre “rules” in relation to our own, scholarly writing and the writing process itself. Throughout the class students will produce writings in multiple genres (analytical, creative, reaction, and review writings), looking critically at narrative forms to explore how “novelty” may emerge.