The concept of “a lady” has been evolving for many centuries: we have come a long way from Shakespeare’s “the lady doth protest too much” to Beyoncé’s “all the single ladies.” However, the constraining laws of conduct for the Western woman were never as meticulously drafted as in the Victorian period. In 1857, William Acton wrote in his The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs that ‘the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled by sexual feelings of any kind.’ Coventry Patmore’s poem, The Angel in the House, states that ‘Man must be pleased; but him to please / Is woman’s pleasure’. The sharply divided gender roles of the 19th century meant that women had to adhere to rigid norms based on male-defined confines of femininity. ‘A lady,’ therefore, was a hardly achieved and easily lost title which implied not only high-class upbringing but also a specific set of rules mainly rooted in total submission to the husband.
During that time many novelists found themselves particularly drawn to “lady characters” and the best among those writers used the novel in order to stretch the confining notion of “ladylikeness.” In order to develop an exciting and believable female character, the writer had to construct a psychological profile far richer and more complex than the one which “a lady” would be allowed to have. This means that many female protagonists, as well as side characters, in the Western literary canon undergo a spiritual and emotional journey throughout which they have to question the role they are given in the Victorian society, redefine their idea of “a lady” or, at times, reject it altogether. This course will focus on eleven classic novels from the English literary canon of the 19th century. We will trace the idea of “ladylikeness” defined, questioned and/or rejected through these texts and also discuss the many differences in the way male and female writers portrayed women during this period.
1// July 16 – Victorian Heroine and the Gothic tradition:
- Victorian social context(s), gender roles and sexuality in the 19th century;
- Northanger Abbey: reimagining the Gothic “damsel”;
- Vanity Fair: Becky, Emmy and the flawed heroine;
- Wuthering Heights: Catherine’s rejection of Heaven.
2// July 17 – Innocence Lost:
- Tess of the d’Urberville: the “fallen woman” under male gaze;
- The Scarlet Letter: sin as a prerequisite for thought.
3// July 18 – ‘The Lady’ and the Fairy Tale:
- Great Expectations: Estella’s predetermined “options”;
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Victorian etiquette vs. magical thinking.
4// July 19 – The Economy of Marriage:
- Middlemarch: between Dorothea and Miss Brooke;
- The Portrait of a Lady: the divided self of Isabel Archer.
5// July 20 – To Speak in His World:
- Jane Eyre and Villette: desire and repression in Charlotte Brontë’s novels;
- Subverting the angel/harlot binarism and killing the angel in the house.
- Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen (1817)
- Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray (1847-8)
- Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë (1847)
- Tess of the d’Urberville, Thomas Hardy (1891)
- The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
- Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (1861)
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (1865)
- Middlemarch, George Eliot (1871-2)
- The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James (1881)
- Jane Eyre (1847) and Villette (1853), Charlotte Brontë
Frequently Asked Questions
What level of English do I need in order to attend?
Preferably, your English level should be above B2 in order to fully enjoy the course. This doesn’t mean you have to show us any certificates in order to enrol, simply that you feel comfortable with spoken English and have no trouble following natural speech. It is perfectly acceptable to ask your teacher to repeat or write something down if you are not sure about it. You are also encouraged to ask questions, but this is not mandatory and nobody will make you speak unless you want to!
Will I have to read the books in English?
No. Although the class will be taught in English and the teacher will be quoting from the original texts, you are more than welcome to read the novels in any language you are most comfortable with, Spanish and Catalan included. If you choose to read in English, an e-reader might be a good option since it allows you to look up unknown words without interrupting the reading. This is not contemporary English so you might stumble upon a fair share of difficult vocabulary.
Do I have to read all the novels?
No. We will be talking about many novels in only one week so it might be too demanding to read all of them. We suggest you pick a couple of titles that you are most interested in and read them before and/or during the course. Do try to read at least two novels from the list below in order to fully enjoy your seminar. The teacher will bring some handouts with important passages copied so you can follow. You won’t need any previous knowledge in order to attend the classes and you can use these sessions as introductory lessons to your future reading.
Do I have to read other books as well?
You don’t have to read any of the books in Suggested further reading. The teacher will bring copies of essays or passages from these titles when they come up in class. You are, of course, welcome to consult any of the suggested reading titles if they catch your eye and you want to learn more about Victorian literature.
Suggested further reading:
- Chase, Karen (ed.), Middlemarch in the Twenty-First Century. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006);
- David, Deirdre (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel. (CUP, 2006);
- Flanders, Judith. The Victorian House. (London, Harper Perennial, 2003);
- Fraiman, Susan. Unbecoming Women: British Women Writers and the Novel of Development (New York, 1993);
- Garrett, Peter K. The Victorian Multiplot Novel: Studies in Dialogical Form. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980);
- Gilbert, S. and Gubar,S. The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven Conn., 1979);
- Hardy, Barbara. Forms of Feeling in Victorian Fiction (London, 1985);
- Heilbrun, Carolyn. Reinventing Womanhood (New York, 1979);
- Martin, Robert B. Charlotte Brontë’s Novels: The Accents of Persuasion. (NY: Norton, 1966).
- Mitchell, Judith. The Stone and the Scorpion: The Female Subject of Desire in the Novels of Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy (New York, 1994);
- O’Gorman, F. (ed.), The Victorian Novel (2008);
- Perkin, Joan. Victorian Women. (London, John Murray, 1993);
- Sweet, Matthew. Inventing the Victorians (London: Faber, 2001)
- Vincus, Martha (ed.), Suffer and Be Still (Bloomington, Ind., 1972);
- Woolf, Virginia. “Professions for Women,” The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. (Harcourt, 1942).