Final year modules


Dissertation in English Literature

In this module students produce an independent Dissertation on a topic determined in consultation with their supervisor. 

Special Subjects 

Options may include modules such as:

Politics and Terror in the Age of Revolutions

The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 fundamentally reshaped the political and literary culture of the British Isles, with the hopes and anxieties which it provoked triggering waves of politically radical manifestoes; a conservative backlash that sought to control revolutionary energies; an unprecedented wave of Gothic texts which reflected and responded to post-Revolutionary fears; and a startling flowering of new aesthetic ideologies which attempted to carve out a privileged position for literature above the sphere of political struggle. This module will explore the political and literary culture of this turbulent period by examining poetry, novels, plays, essays and interventions by writers including Edmund Burke, William Godwin, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Matthew Lewis, Ann Radcliffe, Anna Barbauld, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley and Thomas De Quincey. In the texts on the course, we will consider representations of wrongful imprisonment, visionary prophecy, political apostasy, religious corruption, sexual deviance and drug-fuelled crocodile hallucinations, unpicking both the aesthetic techniques employed and their wider implications amongst shifting social, political and international contexts.

Remembering World War One

Launched in the centenary year of the start of the First World War, this module offers students the opportunity to encounter the shock of the war - its historical, cultural and psychological enormity and incomprehensibility - as it was expressed by writers who experienced it and lived through its aftermath, as well as to explore and critically analyse the continuing significance of the War and its cultural mythology within literary history from 1914 to the present day. They will be exposed to a range of moments in the articulation and representation of the War, from the voices preserved in the poetry of 1914-18, across the curious imaginative silence of the early post-war years to the flood of memoirs and autobiographical prose fiction that appeared in the mid to late 1920s, to the historical representations that began to appear from the 1960s, to our contemporary moment of remembrance and memorialisation as marked by 2014. Framed by a reading of Timothy Findley’s historical novel The Wars (1977), the module will encourage students to reflect upon the ways in which they themselves approach, represent and ‘remember’ the War in the act of historical research and literary criticism.

Students will also have the opportunity to work with some of the World War One archive holdings in the University of Birmingham’s Research and Cultural collections.Other texts taught are likely to include a selection from the following novels, memoirs, plays and poetry collections, alongside letters, diaries and other ephemera: poetry from the trenches and the home front [from The First World War Poetry Digital Archive at and Tim Kendall, ed., Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology (OUP 2013), and Catherine Reilly, Scars Upon My Heart: Women's Poetry and Verse of the First World War (Virago, 2006)], Ford Madox Ford, No More Parades (1925), R.C. Sheriff, Journey’s End (1928), Frederic Manning, The Middle Parts of Fortune (1929), Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1929), Richard Aldington, Death of a Hero (1929), Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929; 1929 Wheen translation), Helen Zenna Smith, Not So Quiet ... (1930), Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth (1933), Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop, Oh, What a Lovely War (1963), Susan Hill, Strange Meeting (1971), and Pat Barker, Regeneration (1991).

Bringing Out the Bodies: Technology, Transhumans, and Skin

This course aims to investigate the debates surrounding the changing nature of what it means to be human by focusing on the role of technology in breaking down the barrier of our skin. The module is designed to work its way inward: from the first technologies held in the hand, to wearable devices, to the piercing of the skin with implants, and ending with genetic manipulation, the search for the cure to aging, and the “ideal” of shedding our bodies entirely. What role does technology play in our lives, to what extent are we willing to become entangled with our scientific discoveries, and what can art and philosophy bring to the exploration, criticism, and shaping of our future biology? Messing with our bodies is about a lot more than making cyborgs...

Students will start each two-week section by considering a provocation from a theoretical, philosophical, and/or scientific short paper (which I promise will be accessible, interesting, and explained thoroughly; you don’t need a science or theory background to enjoy this course!). This work will then be paired in the second week with a work of literature or film. The aim is to explore cutting edge thought and, as such, many examples will be drawn from the late 20th and 21st century, but ideas about technology and the body must be grounded in work across history so that we might talk about the first stone tools and their direct lineage to mobile phones and beyond - students with an interest in any period will therefore be able to pursue these discussions and write about their favourite examples. This course is likely to be of interest to students interested in: the meeting of the sciences and the humanities, the body, gender, critical theory, technology, utopia/dystopia, and the role of art in public debate.

Last Year’s Novels

How do literary critics deal with the very new? In the absence of extant scholarly discussion of recent literary works, how does one begin critical dialogues? In this module we’ll read a selection of novels first published in the UK in 2015 to begin to approach these questions. We’ll read texts from across the English-speaking world and examine both bestsellers and works from independent publishers. We’ll think about the challenge of analysing the contemporary moment, and the mechanics of the contemporary literature industry, including the culture of reviews and the function of prizes. We’ll review popular approaches to literature in the twenty-first century and apply them to the literary works, as well as paying attention to how each novel responds uniquely to the challenge of representing the world. We’ll also explore questions raised by the particular texts under study. This year, our novels (which may include content some students find distressing and/or offensive) will take us into the worlds of corporate anthropology, Los Angeles gang violence, and the Zimbabwean prison system. We’ll read about a white family passing as black, and a black man turning white (except for his buttocks). We’ll meet a war criminal, a talking crow, a dragon and a one-eyed dog.   

Our primary texts will be: A. Igoni Barrett, Blackass; Sara Baume, Spill Simmer Falter Wither; Petina Gappah, The Book of Memory; Ryan Gattis, All Involved; Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant; Miranda July, The First Bad Man; Tom McCarthy, Satin Island; Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs; Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers; Nell Zink, Mislaid

Reading and Popular Culture: Contemporary Book Cultures in North America & UK

We live in an era and a region of the world where less people are reading more books; where more books are published now than 20 years ago, yet educators and librarians fret that young people only play video-games, and the US government would rather Americans read 'To Kill A Mockingbird' than watch 'Desperate Housewives'. Why, in a digital age, does the reading of printed books and the existence of a `bookish culture' still matter? In order to explore and understand both the material and ideological aspects of contemporary book cultures, this module focusses on the social location and cultural function of book reading in the 21st century. Drawing upon contemporary case studies from North America and the UK, the module also considers how and why `ordinary' people read books, how the contemporary mass media frame reading as a form of popular culture and why these practices matter politically, socially and culturally. 

The module will consist of 3 main units: Reading as a Social Practice; Reading as Popular Culture; Producing Readers. Within each unit we will examine a selection of theories, artefacts and practices that will allow us to investigate the meanings and formations of selected contemporary book cultures. Our texts and case studies will range across media, genres and nation-states, and will include both 'literary' and 'middlebrow' books; TV and radio shows; artefacts from city-wide reading projects; evidence gathered from our own reading histories and observations of spaces of reading (e.g. libraries and bookshops) as well as selected theoretical texts.

Nation and Identity in Nineteenth-Century America

From the schisms and improvisations of a new nation that culminated in the Civil War to the position on the cusp of industrial, economic and political dominance celebrated at the 1893 World’s Fair, the American nineteenth century witnessed an extraordinary feat of nation-building without ever quite resolving the question of national identity. Nineteenth-century America’s literature and culture shaped and were shaped by debates over the institution and legacy of slavery; the competing claims of the nation’s diverse regions; emergent campaigns for women’s and minority’s right; an evolving relationship to Europe and to the past. This module explore ideas of nation and identity in novels, poetry and other literary forms, drawing on the work of writers such as Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Fanny Fern, Henry James, Mark Twain, Henry Adams and others.

Senses of the Past: Historical Fiction in the Long Nineteenth Century

This module offers students the chance to explore representations of the historical past in the prose literature of the long nineteenth century. We will be concentrating above all on the historical novel, a genre that emerged and achieved vast popularity during this period, but we will also consider examples of shorter fictional forms (novellas, stories and sketches), as well as writings that play along the border between fiction and the factual. Students will read the work of British and American writers, ranging across the Romantic and Victorian periods: authors studied may include Walter Scott, James Hogg, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens, W. M. Thackeray, Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry James. 

The set primary works for the module will be studied alongside a rich array of contemporary print sources, nineteenth-century history and historiography, and modern critical and theoretical approaches to historical fiction. There will be a recurring emphasis on the writing of wars, revolutions and popular uprisings, and on concomitant questions of national and historical rupture, as well as on the efforts of fictional writings to restore or make up for past losses, to bridge or jump over (or side-step) ruptures in the texture of past time. Related topics for consideration will include: the impact of human history on places and ecosystems, the interactions of oral and written history, the romance of antiquarian scholarship, literary biography and book-history, superstition and the persistence of the supernatural, the progress of civilization and the costs of that progress, and the recreational appropriation of the past as a field for adventure or a tourist destination. Throughout the module we will be asking how nineteenth-century historical fictions attempt to register the ideological and stylistic differences of the past while also bringing it into imaginative reach of the present.

New York New York

At the start of the twentieth century New York City was becoming the city of modernity; the “cubist city” as Francis Picabia described it. Its metropolitan scale, vibrant, cosmopolitan sidewalk cultures, and the visceral rush of its rapid transit systems demanded new modes of expression from writers (and painters and photographers). The juxtaposition of skyscrapers and tenements created new symbolic and physical urban geographies. This module begins with Henry James, Jose Marti, Abraham Cahan, John Sloan, George Bellows, Alfred Stieglitz, Anzia Yezierska, Claude McKay, Djuna Barnes, Walker Evans, Bernice Abbott and Weejee as they meet the challenges of early-twentieth-century urban representation. 

The module goes on to explore changes in the City and its representation over the course of the twentieth century. For the Beat Generation New York was at once oppressive and inspirational; in the 1960s it became a site of countercultural expression and transformation. By the late 1970s the city was on the verge of bankruptcy, a byword for urban decay: the emergence of hip-hop as a visual, verbal and musical counterculture at the end of this decade exemplifies the “creative destruction” – the process of rapid degeneration and regeneration – that characterises the art of the city. From its origins at Bronx block parties to its crossover into mainstream culture, from Grandmaster Flash to Eric B. & Rakim, hip-hop created soundscapes and lyrics that described and reimagined this complex urban environment. 

Moving from Henry James to Grandmaster Flash “New York, New York” is, like the City itself, expansive, and so, like the City, needs to be broken down into manageable neighbourhoods. Week-by-week this module explores the ways in which a particular neighbourhood and the literature and culture it fostered – for example Greenwich Village in the 1910s and Harlem in the 1920s – exemplifies or defines a particular New York decade.

Viragos, Coquettes and Prudes

Women began to be both readers and writers in greater and greater numbers during the eighteenth century. They began to write in all literary genres, including poetry, prose fiction and drama, but also in lesser known genres such as journals, letters and political propaganda, and female characters began to appear more prominently in literature. During the course of the century more and more conduct books and educational texts aimed at women appeared in an attempt to get women to police their own behaviour according to certain moral and cultural norms. The course will explore the work of some well-known literary writers of the period (such as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Eliza Haywood and Frances Burney) and will address the ways in which women are represented in literature and the consequent development of a female aesthetic. 

The course will examine some of the issues raised by the reading of these texts, such as: what are the characteristics of early writing by women? How are the politics of gender relations and identities represented? How have these writers and their texts been treated by literary critics? How did women relate to contemporary ideas of author/authority? How were women's voices shaped by the expectations of mostly male readers? How was it possible for women to start to occupy the heroic roles in literature traditionally reserved for men? How were expectations of women governed by the representation in literature of types of women such as the virago, the coquette, the prude, the termagant. Other topics will include the cultural expectations of women, the education of women, publication and patronage, and the intersection of gender issues with those of social rank.

Utopia and Its Discontents

This module examines utopias from the classical period to the twentieth century. It explores ways in which projections of the ideal state address the political, social, and economic challenges of their own age. We will also see how these works engage with similar themes, such as the limits of personal freedom, the nature of justice, the role of women, the distribution of wealth, and the education of the young. The module will consider ways in which later utopian projections challenge and revise earlier ones: William Morris, for example, rejects in his News from Nowhere the rigid hierarchical family unit which underpinned Thomas More’s vision of commonwealth in Utopia. The module also includes works by Plato, Machiavelli, Voltaire, Samuel Butler, H.G. Wells, and Aldous Huxley. Students will be usually expected to study one primary text a week, and to read more widely (as directed) about the specific issues each text raises.

The Work of T. S. Eliot

This module introduces students to one of the key modernist writers, and one whose work is widely perceived as among the most ‘difficult’. Students will be required to read widely in Eliot’s poetry, prose and drama, with a view to finding links and mutual illumination between these different writings, and discovering the consistencies in his outlook that can make that work more graspable. The module will consider chronologically the poetry from Prufrock (1917) to Four Quartets (1943), as well as a range of Eliot’s literary and cultural criticism, and the drama of the 1930s. It will consider a range of Eliot’s sources, some key interpretative debates his work has provoked, Eliot’s ‘Englishness’, the anti-semitic controversy surrounding the work and the relations between his classicism, Christianity and cultural theorising.

John Donne and the Metaphysical Poets

In his 1921 essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’, T.S. Eliot famously observed that, ‘A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility.’  Is this alleged fusion of thought and feeling the hallmark of so-called metaphysical poetry?  Or is this apparent synthesis instead ‘a kind of discordia concors’, as Samuel Johnson put it, in which ‘the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together’?  This module sets out to explore the nature, varieties, and influence of metaphysical poetry, taking as its corpus of texts selected poems by John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Henry Vaughan, Abraham Cowley, Andrew Marvell, Thomas Traherne, Edward Herbert of Cherbury, and others.  

Through close reading of the subjects, themes, and rhetorical and metrical forms of these works, students will be invited to explore broader questions of literary genre and poetic tradition, politics and religion, sexual and gender relations, and textual transmission and reception (including discussion of the roles of manuscript, print, and the social history of lyric poetry).  The module aims to place the writers studied in relation to other contemporary groupings of English poets, such as the Spenserians, the Tribe of Ben, and the Cavalier Poets, as well as considering the reaction to and legacy of metaphysical poetry found in later poetic movements, such as the Augustans, Romantics, and Modernists.  Characterised by its often outrageous logic, urgent argumentation, querulous wit, and ‘discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike’, metaphysical poetry invariably elicits a criticism in kind: from Eliot and Empson, to Vickers, Fowler, Carey, and Ricks.  Wide reading of such commentaries will aid students’ analysis and evaluation of the poems in question, and even bring into serious question the validity of the term ‘metaphysical poetry’ itself.

Henry James and Edith Wharton

This course offers intensive study of a selection of the works of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Both James and Wharton depict life among the financially comfortable classes in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America, but their novels and shorter writings are more than mere dramas of manners. Wharton’s writing treats the very fine gradations of social and cultural prestige critically, and paints a complicated and contradictory picture of pre-World War One New York society, while James is always alert to the moral and ethical minutiae of an upper-class New England world. Both writers’ focus lies on the individual and psychological weight of tradition and class, and both find innovative ways to represent personal and psychological experience that foreshadow (and indeed overlap with) modernist experimentation.

The course will follow a number of key ideas that coalesce in the oeuvres of James and Wharton: their representations of American society; their interest in Italy as a site of escape; romance and death; and their abiding interest in the plight of the ‘New Woman’. Novels and short stories from both writers will be studied in the light of these wider contextual issues, and the course will offer students the chance to explore these topics in the light of primary and secondary critical work. The course will also offer students the chance to study some of Henry James’ later work, which has the reputation of being difficult and obtuse. Later James is difficult, but is also richly rewarding – we will look at James’ turn inward in his later work in the context of the crises of his later life and his growing interest in the modes of psychological reality in some of his seminal late short stories.

The Birth of English Theatre: from the Mystery plays to Jacobean City Comedy

Encompassing broad conceptions of dramatic performance, this module examines the diverse traditions of plays, playwriting and play-going in the late medieval and early modern periods. Opening with the community urban drama of the mystery cycles it examines how medieval playwrights exploited staging, visual traditions, and comedy in their retelling of biblical history for contemporary audiences. It then considers some of the distinctive forms of pre-modern performance, such as morality plays and the interludes performed in the households of great nobles and royalty. In covering the early-mid Tudor period it moves to explore the ways in which playwrights responded to the momentous events of the Reformation and to the newly rediscovered traditions of classical comedy and tragedy, and how the Inns of Court provided a site for the emerging English theatre. 

The last part of the module explores the emergence of plays written for the professional theatres and texts covered will include Marlowe’s Edward II and two plays by Middleton, The Revenger’s Tragedy (a 'camp' Hamlet) and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, now considered to be amongst the best of Jacobean City comedies. Throughout the module we will examine closely the language of the plays, their stagecraft and textual and performance histories, including recent and contemporary productions. We will challenge received ideas about the unsophisticated nature of much pre-Shakespearean dramatic traditions and consider the ways in which drama, spectacle, and satire were central to the exploration of cultural, political, religious and social issues in this period. Texts studied may include: Pageants from the York Mystery Cycle; Second Shepherd’s Play from the Wakefield cycle; Mankind; Thomas Heywood, The Play of The Weather; Ralph Roister Doister; Jasper Heywood, Thyestes; Jane Lumley, Iphigenia at Aulis; Christopher Marlowe, Edward II and Tamburlaine the Great; Thomas Middleton, The Revenger’s Tragedy and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside; Ben Jonson, Bartholomew Fair.

Postmodern Historical Fictions

History – what constitutes the past and the methods we use to explain that past – has always been a close relation of the novel. Both are concerned with telling believable stories and both rely on the power of narrative and the structure of language to convey truth. The genre of historical fiction, so prominent and popular during the early decades of the nineteenth century, was revived in the later years of the twentieth century by writers seeking to test the boundaries and hinterlands of historical subjects and stories to reflect on the difficulties of writing about the past. This revival was no longer interested in presenting the past – as the great German historian Leopold von Ranke described it – “as it actually happened”, but instead challenged the belief that ‘history’ describes a realm which can be accessed in the present in an unbiased and objective way. Rather, such works of postmodern historical fiction are strongly concerned with the idea that versions of the past are contingent on who is telling them and are subject to the prejudices and partialities of the present, and they explore the past in innovative and challenging ways.

PoMo Historical Fictions will introduce you to a wide range of contemporary texts, films and theory to reflect on the uses made of historical tropes in postmodern fiction. The course sets literary and filmic postmodernism in a wider debate about the nature of knowledge, and it highlights connections between disciplines, and promotes and encourages vibrant interdisciplinary assessed work.

Shakespeare’s Bodies on the Edge

Shakespeare’s plays often present the body in extremis, existing on the edge between states and stages (in both the figurative and literal senses). This module will explore the ways in which these dramatised bodies inhabit the liminal and contested spaces between life and death; remembering and forgetting; the natural and the supernatural; the human and the monstrous; the corporeal and the technological; the masculine and the feminine; and between old worlds and new. Using a range of historical, contextual and illustrative material – from spectacular funerary monuments to anatomical manuals; from the archaeological remains of magic to the wonder literature of early modern monstrosity; from communal rituals of bodily humiliation to early modern automata and robotics – we’ll plunge into the hidden recesses of the Renaissance body to reveal how Shakespeare’s art was influenced by advances in the study of anatomy and dissection, changes in the understanding of natural and cosmological histories, developments in early theories of gender, prevailing anxieties surrounding witchcraft, trends in the rituals of burial and commemoration, the politics of the tortured body, and the impact of new-world exploration and colonial enterprises. Our aim will be to gain new and compelling insights into Shakespeare’s staged bodies as they function at the nexus of material, textual and performative cultures.
Join me on a journey into the uncharted territories of Renaissance corporeality and together we will rediscover Shakespeare’s extreme bodies; Shakespeare’s bodies on the edge. 

Contemporary North American Writing

This module introduces students to key examples of North American writing of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, representing a diverse range of literary voices and concerns. Students will be able to critically engage with ideas and features of selected literary texts, including postmodernism, new sincerity writing, and representations of North American history. The module will enable students to study some of the key themes and texts that have emerged in North American writing within the last twenty-five years. Students will be able to identify and analyse the major theoretical and conceptual concerns of the contemporary literary cultures of the U.S and Canada through novels, short stories, and essays.
Authors to be studied include some of the following: David Foster Wallace, Junot Diaz, Colson Whitehead, ZZ Packer, Dana Spiotta, Don DeLillo, Joshua Ferris.

Literature in the Age of Evolution

In this module we study how literature in all its forms has participated in and responded to the scientific discovery that life on Earth has evolved rather than being created. Charles Darwin's announcement of the theory of evolution by natural selection in On the Origin of Species in 1859 marked a watershed, but evolution as an idea had been written about by scientists and poets since the end of the eighteenth century, and it has continued to be developed, refined and debated through to the present day. Ranging widely across British and American literature, on this module students study a diverse selection of texts that engage with evolutionary theory from the early nineteenth century to the contemporary moment, including poetry, novels, science fiction and drama, as well as the writings of the scientists themselves. We ask how literature has explored the challenges posed by evolution to received ideas of religion and ethics. We consider how poetry and fiction can articulate what it means to live in a universe in which we have evolved through natural processes including natural selection, sexual selection and genetic drift, and in which we are related by ties of kinship and ecology to other living creatures. We consider too how literature and literary language and forms have been used to promote and to challenge different evolutionary worldviews, and how literary critics have sought to ground their own practice in evolutionary theory. 

The curriculum will vary from year to year, partly in response to the students’ own interests. Authors who may feature on the module include nineteenth-century scientists such as Darwin and T. H. Huxley; contemporary science writers such as Richard Dawkins, James Lovelock and Edward O. Wilson; poets such as Erasmus Darwin, Lord Byron, Alfred Tennyson, George Meredith, James Thomson, Thomas Hardy, Constance Naden, Robinson Jeffers, Edna St Vincent Millay, Judith Wright, Ted Hughes, as well as selected contemporary poets; novelists and science fiction writers such as Hardy, Samuel Butler, Olaf Stapledon, William Golding, A. S. Byatt, Ian McEwan and Rebecca Stott; dramatists such as Bernard Shaw, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, and Timberlake Wertenbaker; and literary critics ranging from Gillian Beer and George Levine to Joseph Carroll, Brian Boyd and Jonathan Gottschall. 

Visions of London

"‘Hell is a city,’ wrote Percy Shelley, ‘very much like London’, and other writers have often concurred in portraying the ‘British Metropolis’ as a city of corruption and alienation.  In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, London grew to be the largest and most modern city on Earth, but as parts of it rose in splendour, other parts declined into poverty, ruin and despair.  In the twentieth century, London was a conflicted city – crossroads, financial centre, bombed martyr, fertile pleasure ground and hungry maw.  This module will explore the ways in which a range of different writers have sought to deal with London’s scale and its changing circumstances, looking at approaches across a wide range of genres, including biography, essay, poetry, song, the realist novel, speculative fiction and polemic.  Texts examined will glance back to the earliest intimations of the city’s foundation, but the authors in whose footsteps we will principally tread will be those who engaged with the city’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pomp and decay and those who have wandered its twentieth- and twenty-first century streets seeking and enduing meanings within its fragments.  Peter Ackroyd, introducing his biography of the city, contends that ‘London is so large and so wild that it contains no less than everything’; he goes on to write that it will ‘be seen to harbour the secrets of the human world’.  

This module will trace the sublime and ridiculous mysteries that writers have pulled out of and written into the metropolis, considering the forms and modes which they employ, characterising their difficulties and appreciating the intensities of their visions.The module will examine a range of texts covering a period stretching from the early eighteenth century to the present day.  An indicative list of authors might include Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair, Charles Lamb, John Gay, William Wordsworth, James Thompson, T.S. Eliot, Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Michael Moorcock, Neil Gaiman and China Miéville.

The Essay as Form and Function

This module introduces students to the study of the essay, considered under several aspects: as a literary genre, a mode of cultural criticism, and a style of composition. In his Dictionary, Samuel Johnson – himself a great essayist – defines the essay as ‘A loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece […] A trial; an experiment’. Taking orientation from this definition, the module will examine the conditions that produce the essay’s radically experimental character – paying specific attention to the miscellaneous, occasional, and ephemeral conditions of periodical print culture – and it will survey the uses to which this most various of forms is put. We will sample key moments in the history of the essay (from its origins in the early modern period to the start of the twentieth century), and we will explore the social and intellectual settings in which essays circulated in the past. 

Topics considered may include: the essay’s place in periodical culture from the 1710s to the 1920s; its role in the emergence of professional literary and cultural criticism during this period; its relation to other nonfictional genres, including journalism, reportage, reviewing, travel-writing, and autobiography; its associations with cultural values of sociability, urbanity, and cosmopolitanism; and the opportunities it holds out for constructing authorial personas, playing with the author-reader relationship, and forging a style in direct response to the pressure of circumstances. Alternating between thematic, formal, and contextual issues, the module will focus on essays by an array of writers from both sides of the Atlantic, such as Michel de Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Samuel Johnson, Benjamin Franklin, Washington Irving, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Matthew Arnold, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, T. S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf.

The Modernist Novel

This course offers the opportunity for extended study of some of the major novels of English literary modernism. During this module we will study some of the key writers, texts, contexts and formal/thematic features of literary experimentalism within the novel genre in the first three decades of twentieth century. One of the paradoxes of ‘literary modernism’ is the discrepancy between its retrospective, canonical definition, and the often more heterogeneous movements and aesthetics of the period itself, as well as the often wayward impulses of the texts themselves. The aim of the module is to explore and debate the development of the concept of the modernist novel, analysing illustrative texts within the context of a history of literary criticism and reception from the point of their own contemporary moment to the present day.

Texts studied in 2014/ 15 were: D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love (1920), Ford Madox Ford, No More Parades (1925), Dorothy Richardson, The Tunnel (1919) in Pilgrimage Vol.2, James Joyce, Ulysses (1922), Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room (1922) and The Waves (1931), and Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies (1930) and Brideshead Revisited (1945).
You will be introduced to these works within the context of the dramatic social and cultural changes of the 1910s and 20s, as well as be encouraged to analyse their different styles and modes of narrative in relation to contemporary debates about realism and experimental technique within the modern novel. Studying Joyce’s Ulysses presents a particular challenge that students tell me year after year they find a fascinating and surprisingly enjoyable one!

Imagining the Digital: Fictions and Theories of Digital Culture

As we continue to move through a moment of pervasive digital culture, and increasingly ubiquitous digital technology, new aesthetic paradigms emerge across the arts. This course explores those paradigms, theories and fictions of the digital, as they appear in recent Anglo-American culture. The course will introduce students to digital culture as a material, philosophical, political and fictional set of encounters, covering a range of critical approaches. The course will ask students to engage with: an introduction to terminology around new media and digital culture; histories of computing culture; theories and philosophies of digital media; and digital media as an aspect of broader social conditions and critical concerns, such as labour, affect, gender, race. Each week there will be primary and secondary set reading: primary texts will mostly be fictional novels or films; secondary material will cover a range of approaches and disciplines.Students will be expected to participate in class discussion, and may be expected to participate in group presentations.

World Comics

The last twenty years have seen a drastic rise in comics and graphic novels from around the world. From Japanese Manga to Iranian webcomix, graphic writing is now as varied as prose and as widely produced. This module investigates how writers and illustrators from regions such as the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia are altering and adapting the medium to speak to new contexts, for alternative aesthetic and political purposes. The graphic form is increasingly used to mediate global politics in a variety of ways, both by documenting social inequality and by resisting state and sectarian violence. This module focuses on how the combination of text and image is used to represent atrocities and to articulate protest: What does the ‘graphic’ mean today? What is its global appeal? What are the stylistic similarities and differences across texts from different cultural contexts? To approach these questions students will explore critical frameworks from fields such as comics, trauma and postcolonial studies.

This module covers a range of texts, from memoirs and travelogues to journalism and political satire, by authors like Art Spiegelman, Marjane Satrapi, Joe Sacco, Lamia Ziadé, Keiji Nakazawa and Vishwajyoti Ghosh. Students will be encouraged to compare the ways in which graphic novels are influenced by more traditional genres and forms (poetry and collage, fine art and photography, for example) and to consider how comics relate to ‘popular’ media such as cartoons, games and YouTube clips.

Victorian Literature and Science

In twenty-first century culture, the boundaries between the arts and sciences (which are still sometimes referred to as ‘The Two Cultures’) are the source of conflict, contention, and, occasionally, creativity. Many facets of this situation have roots in the Victorian period, an era which was characterised by both rapid scientific advancement and an outpouring of new literary forms. The relationships between scientific and literary ‘discoveries’ of the nineteenth century are anything but as simple as the ‘two culture’ model suggests – the purpose of this module is to explore them in some detail.

Alongside canonical Victorian literature which engaged with scientific ideas, we will also examine some nonfictional ‘scientific literature’, taking account of the possibility that science’s influence over literary forms and contents may have been reciprocated. Can fiction influence the discourses of fact? Might science and fiction share a common language in this period? Can an English student speak responsibly to scientific debates? In short, can the gulf between these two disciplines ever be negotiated? With reference to the large body of critical writing which has recently arisen on the subject, these questions inform the backbone of this course.The course will be structured principally around the Natural and Earth sciences, which have – largely due to the influence of the Origin of Species – been central in recent critical discussions of Literature and Science. However, we will also pay attention to a selection of other scientific fields, as well as giving some thought to pseudoscience and the occult.

Law and Literature

This module will introduce students to a vibrant area of current interdisciplinary scholarship: namely, the study of law and literature. Such study can be split into two related categories. Firstly, law in literature reflects upon the variety of ways in which law has been represented by literature (an example of which would be the depiction of criminal trials in contemporary fiction). Secondly, law as literature explores the affinities between the interpretative strategies utilised by lawyers and legal scholars and those practiced by literary theorists – in other words, the law can be read as a text. With these dual topics in mind, texts by authors such as Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, E. M. Forster, Franz Kafka, Truman Capote and Julian Barnes will be studied alongside the theoretical work of amongst others, Michel Foucault, Peter Brooks and Hans-Georg Gadamer. The issues raised by the module will include representations of justice (both poetic and juridical); the fact-finding employed by both the criminal trial and realist novel of the nineteenth century; the pervading influence of surveillance in modern culture; the use and abuse of confession; and the determining/illustrating of criminal states of mind.

Fantasy and Fandom

From heroes and quests to magic and hidden identities, modern fantasy has looked to the literature of the medieval period for inspiration. Yet it has also consistently transformed and reshaped its source material, rewriting the significance of key motifs and ideas in order to address the issues of its own time and place of production. This module will examine the ways in which modern fantasy writing both adopts and adapts the culture, language, characters and narratives of medieval texts, and in so doing identifies its authors as an (albeit diverse) fandom. Although not fanfiction in the strictest terms, modern fantasy writing often shares with it the desire to extend and appropriate the plots and protagonists of earlier texts, and to challenge or re-examine them. In this module we will think about how this process of adaptation takes place and what is involved, in the process questioning where stories come from and who can be said to ‘own’ them.

In the spring of 2017 the texts that we work with will extend from Beowulf to writings by George R. R. Martin and Neil Gaiman; along the way we will take in classics like J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees. Students will be invited to query all aspects of modern fantasy, and especially its medievalism, discussing questions that touch on politics, gender, representations of war and conflict and the portrayal of the ‘other’ in fantastical literature. In addition, we will consider how the diverse fandoms of fantasy have come to shape our own responses to it, and even reshaped fantasy itself. 

Suicide Girls: Female Self-Harm in the Late-Nineteenth Century

From John Everett Millais’ painting Ophelia to Henrik Ibsen’s drama Hedda Gabler, nineteenth-century society was captivated by narratives of female ‘self murder’. The final decades of the century were plagued by fears that the fast-pasted modern world would inevitably lead to degeneration into feebleness and nervous hysteria. The ‘New Woman’ loomed large on the political stage, advocating and agitating for work outside the home, new sexual freedom, and the vote. Popular culture deemed suicide a measuring stick of social and cultural decay, while doctors and policemen suggested that society was in the midst of an epidemic of self-harm. In fiction, the female body became the nexus of these anxieties. 

This course will explore the narrative patterns of female self-harm in literature spanning the globe, including Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, among others. We will also consider the shorter fictions of the ‘New Woman’ as well as historical non-fiction which considered suicide from a medical and social standpoint. In the first half of term we will consider earlier depictions of suicidal women written by male authors, analysing the ways in which writers such as Tolstoy and Flaubert make use of the sexualized suicidal female body. The second half of term will turn to later works by female authors and will consider questions of how women might have appropriated the suicidal woman, shifting her from a figure of tragic romance to one of uncompromising defiance in the face of an unsympathetic society.

Creative Pathways

If you have chosen to take a Creative Practice pathway, you will take two of your Special Subject Modules in this area. The list of these modules is regularly updated to match the research interests of our academic stuff but examples of modules might include Genre Fiction (Creative Writing), Film and Television Authorship (Film), Language and New Media (Language) and Victorian Drama (Drama).