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Topics in Victorian Literature

The 19th Century Novel and the Female Subject

Portrait of Jeanne Duval (1862)
Portrait of Jeanne Duval (1862)

Fugitives, eccentrics, sisters, and outcasts. Nineteenth-century British novels often center interesting and unruly women. Second-wave feminist critics, such as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in The Madwoman in the Attic and Nancy Armstrong in Desire and Domestic Fiction, famously took up these novels as exemplary for thinking through questions of feminist agency, individuality, and the body. However, contemporary readers and critics have pointed out the overall neglect of women of color in these earlier readings and of the influence of Atlantic slavery and colonialism on the problem of gender itself.

In this course, we will read a selection of British novels, the first Black British slave narrative written by a woman, and some contemporary queer, feminist, and trans theory to explore the following questions: what ideas about gender and sexuality do these texts advance? How is femininity linked with race and racialization? What is the relationship between the novel form and “modern womanhood”? And how might these texts help us understand gender and femininity in the present in more expansive, interesting ways? Required texts will include: Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, The History of Mary Prince, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and Olive Shreiner’s The Story of an African Farm. Criticism will include work by Eve Sedgwick, Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak, Jenny Sharpe, and others.


  • Consistent and active in-class participation
  • Two discussion questions per semester, circulated in advance of class
  • A midterm paper of 3–4 pages
  • A final paper of 7–8 pages


  • ENGL 200
  • ENGL 290

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