From Romantics to Victorians


In the fifth chapter of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865), the Caterpillar asks Alice, "Who are you?" Alice is perplexed, and ends up saying, ‘'I can't explain myself, I'm afraid, sir … because I'm not myself, you see."

Much nineteenth-century literature was centrally concerned with the capacities and potentialities of the human mind, including questions of identity. This course aims to trace these concerns through a variety of texts from the 1790s through to the 1880s. Because the inner life was especially a focus of poetry, most of the texts on the course are in this form, but some prose is featured too – including Alice in Wonderland.

The course is divided into two sections, although the interests of the two sections are not mutually exclusive. It begins with the Romantic concept of the imagination, studied through ST Coleridge’s poetry from the 1790s, and his famous definition of the imagination in Biographia Literaria (1817). It then considers notable explorations of psychological states, including unusual and aberrant psychological states: in the dramatic monologues of this genre’s most prominent Victorian practitioners, Robert Browning and Augusta Webster, and in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). This section ends with Carroll’s "Alice" books and their more light-hearted but still probing exploration of questions of identity.

The second half of the course concentrates on interactions between the self and other, primarily through love, broadly conceived. It starts with the poetry of Keats from the second decade of the century, and continues with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850). As with Augusta Webster’s poetry in the first section, Victorian constructions of gender are significant to Barrett Browning’s work. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850) is an extended elegy for a close friend who died young, but is also famous for raising questions about human and social development later canvassed in Darwin’s works.

Both social contexts and constructions of gender are relevant to the last text covered in this section, Elizabeth Gaskell’s novella Cousin Phillis (1864), which sets the female world of domesticity against the increasingly industrialised male domain of paid work and mobility.


Coursework + exam

Availability 2022

Not taught in 2022




Essay covering one writer: 1200 words

Essay covering at least two writers: 2000 words

Class exercises: 5 x 200 words

Exam: 2 hours


ENGLISH 313: 15 points


30 points at Stage II in English