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Incorporating (and Enjoying) Little-Known Romantic Fiction: A Practical Application

Stephen C. Behrendt, University of Nebraska


  1. It's a dilemma that offers no easy answers when it comes to our courses in Romantic-era fiction. How can we reconcile in them (1) the need to cover acknowledged "classics," (2) the complementary need to situate canonical readings within literary, cultural, and historical contexts, and (3) the equally pressing need to alert students to the extraordinary numbers of contemporary novels with which now-canonical novels vied for attention and influence in their own time? Even more to the point, how are we supposed to do all this within the limited time and space permitted us by the conventional academic terms—the quarters and semesters—that hamstring alike our ambitions and our options? What follows describes one option that has worked well for me.

  2. Let me first explain the conditions that govern the courses I offer in Romantic fiction at the University of Nebraska, to give some context for the approach I have developed. Usually the novels course is called "The Romantic Novel" or "Romantic Fiction," although when I last offered it (in 2006) the title (and scope) was altered to "Romantic and Early Victorian Novels." Because the course was recent and its materials are still online, this is the model I shall describe in this essay. This upper-division course is limited to approximately 25 students and may (and usually does) include a number of graduate students. Rather perversely, my department has no system of prerequisites for courses, so that while my roster generally includes upper-level English majors and some graduate students, as many as a quarter to a third of the students may have had no other courses in English beyond their composition requirement. Certainly most (including the majors) have not had our intermediate-level survey course, "British Novel, 1700-1900," nor have most of them had much formal experience with history (British, American, or international and cultural), and so most of them come to the course with very little prior experience in applying literary history and theory, cultural history, and close, contextual reading to their experience of reading literature. Any given class, regardless of its "level," must consequently be constructed so as somehow to address the almost wholly incompatible needs of students ranging from the non-major with no background in literature to PhD students in English who may be taking their last formal course before moving to their comprehensive examinations and dissertations. Needless to say, these conditions call for something other than the specialized and discipline-specific approach I might take in other circumstances. A few years ago, I decided to see whether I could turn this apparent liability into an opportunity.

  3. That said, let me say also that I have long believed that we do both ourselves and our students—whatever their backgrounds—a disservice when we fail to let them learn what we "do" in English studies by giving them opportunities actually to do some of what we do. Our colleagues in archeology take students on digs, and our colleagues in the sciences take them into laboratories. Shouldn't we be doing something of the same sort? We "do" many things as scholars and teachers of literature, of course, from close reading of primary texts to detective work of all sorts in secondary and tertiary materials, both "literary" and theoretical, and while the results of this work take many forms, those forms nevertheless involve principally writing and teaching. Our students benefit (and so do we, in fact) from engaging in these readerly and scholarly activities in more pragmatic fashion than is customary in most of the courses they take in English departments. But involving students directly—as what the social sciences call "primary investigators"—in the activities of discovery, recovery, and reassessment that I describe in this essay turns them into (pardon the expression) "participating investors" in the collective work of a course, and I have found that both majors and non-majors really do respond positively—even enthusiastically—to being brought into the equation in this fashion. What follows here, then, is a description of one of the methods for teaching Romantic-era fiction that I have used with greatest success, and with real, tangible results.

  4. In my courses in Romantic-era fiction I have begun mixing canonical and less familiar novels on my reading lists and then combining these with ambitious individual course projects in which students first read and report to their colleagues on non-canonical and little known novels and then post their results on a website that I maintain. I can do this because the University of Nebraska Libraries several years ago acquired a complete microfiche archive of the "Corvey Collection," a remarkable collection of Romantic-era novels in English, French, and German that includes nearly ten thousand titles. This collection, which comprises the belles lettres portion of a nearly seventy-six thousand volume library of early nineteenth-century literature housed at Castle Corvey in Germany, forms the basis of an ongoing bibliographical and literary-historical recovery project being conducted at Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Cardiff, in the United Kingdom (both of which also have copies of the complete archive), and to which the "Corvey Project" at the University of Nebraska is contributing. My project is in some respects related to the "Adopt an Author" project that Emma Clery developed at Sheffield Hallam some years ago as part of a venture there to generate interest in, and to provide access to, writing by women in the Corvey Collection. (A complete catalogue of the English-language titles in the collection is available online from Sheffield Hallam.) My students have access to this archive and to several related resources, including excellent microfilm holdings in early British periodicals.

  5. Because I make my course documents available to my students on paper and on the web, I have included in this essay links to them and to various related materials and resources. My course home page has links to the readings and course expectations, as well as to a page that explains the Corvey Novels Project in general and provides links to additional pages containing detailed instructions to the student and selected resources for developing the project. In addition to reading from a common list of texts (I try to include some texts in online versions), each student selects a novel from a list which I distribute at the beginning of the semester. The student reads the novel from the microfiche copies held at our university library (where they can borrow portable readers and have fiches copied) and then prepares several documents to be submitted by the end of the semester. The first is a synopsis of the novel; typically, these run two to three single-spaced pages. The student also searches both our microforms and our other research collections, as well as on-line resources, for contemporary reviews of the novel, which she or he transcribes in full. The student also uses various other resources to prepare a brief biographical account of the novel's author, focusing in particular on the selected novel. By the end of the semester, the student gives me paper copies of all these materials, together with electronic versions (some give me disks; some use email attachments) of all three. I then edit these lightly for consistency (and for grammar and usage, of course) and set them up on a website that I have created here called The Corvey Novels Project. The list of novels that have been prepared and posted on this site to date is available here; it reflects the work of two academic-term classes, plus contributions from colleagues here and elsewhere who have allowed me to post their own contributions. During the final three weeks of our class meetings students report individually on their projects: a very brief synopsis, a brief discussion of the challenges, accomplishments, and discoveries involved in their projects, and some comments about how their novel seems to them to "fit" with those we have read jointly as a class. Each student also distributes a single-spaced paper copy of her or his synopsis to every other student (and to me), so that at the course's end every student has paper copies of the synopses of some two dozen additional novels we have "covered" in the course, which thereby achieves a "coverage" that is otherwise impossible in a conventional reading-intensive novels course. Each student also gives me an essay that describes her or his work on the project and examines its relevance in light of the work we have done collectively; this essay does not get placed on the website, but it does get returned with my comments. Finally, I ask each student to give me a page or so evaluating the project as a whole and giving me their sense of what—if anything—they have gained from pursuing it. More on this later.

  6. A note about procedures. During the first week of my course I briefly sketch the historical and critical context for our work as in any conventional course, and I also explain some of the recent developments in Romantics studies concerning canonicity and periodicity, to make the point that the novels we will read represent aspects of both the traditional canon and the wider field of public reading that formed the backdrop against which (or within which) canonical authors wrote and were read. I make the point, for example, that "British Romanticism" is still often characterized in terms of a group of canonical male poets, so that when it comes to Romantic fiction many of the standard definitions and characterizations do not "fit" the fiction. I explain that Romantic-era fiction manifests fairly early in the period themes and preoccupations we typically associate with the bourgeois Victorians, including domesticity and the family, gender relations, and the role of "work" in domestic and public society, as well as a tendency toward melodrama that is far less evident in the period's poetry. I stress that conventional wisdom about literary "movements" and "periods" often elides fascinating dissonances like the fact that these movements or periods do not always occur at the same time, either from one nation (or culture) to another or even between individual genres within a single literary culture, and that what was widely popular (and therefore widely read and influential) was not always what has come to be regarded as canonical literature. So I encourage students to try to discover the broader demographics of actual audiences and readerships that contemporary theorists like Franco Moretti have begun to stress in works like Moretti's Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (Verso, 2005) as a way of glimpsing the actual literary landscape of the times and not the selective and filtered one that is offered by traditional literary history.

  7. I always include some "classic" novels in my course, with the expectation that at least some students will have some prior experience with one or more of them, but I also go out of my way to include some that I expect none to have read—or even to know about. I also explain the "Corvey Novels Project" immediately, both to impress upon them the seriousness of the work we will be doing together and its value for scholarship, and to get them thinking right away about selecting a novel and getting started, since they quickly discover how many Romantic-era novelists there are whose names they have never encountered before. I stress that because I will be mounting the results of their work (with their signed permission, I should add, to make everything legal), they need to realize that the work they will do will contribute in genuinely meaningful ways to the ongoing recovery of historically neglected or marginalized novels and novelists by scholars around the world. I pass along right away, too, an anecdote that drives home the point effectively. When I began this project with a class in 2002 two students gave me some of their materials roughly half-way through the course, and I immediately formatted them and put them on the website to serve as examples. Within less than a week I received an email from a scholar in Australia inquiring about one of the novels whose synopsis I had posted, and about the work of the student who was investigating it. When I reported this at the next course meeting, the effect on the class was electric. And students clearly began to take their work very seriously indeed.

  8. My course proceeds on a sort of double track, then. We read and discuss the novels on the common syllabus, but students begin well before the course's midpoint to read their novel (I ask for progress reports, to prod those who might risk a potentially fatal delay), so that they are in some sense always measuring two different reading projects against one another. This procedure accomplishes several objectives: (1) in addition to their shared, common reading the class will by the term's end learn as a group about as many "other" novels as we have class members (typically about 25); (2) students discover (and express) the unexpected delights involved in reading novels that have been long unread; (3) students participate in meaningful literary recovery projects, engaging in comparative analysis while exploring cultural history in unconventional ways; and (4) class members generate internet-accessible scholarly materials that will be of real service to readers, scholars, and teachers world-wide.

  9. One thing that has surprised me most about student response to this project is how very positive it is. Among two classes, no more than three or four students have expressed real disenchantment. The overwhelming response has been enthusiastic, and that enthusiasm has translated into both insightful comparative classroom discussions and surprisingly high quality materials for the website. Students have reported, both publicly and anonymously, that the project has provided a sense of accomplishment that is uncommon in their college experience: a sense that they have done something that matters. This separates the project from those traditional "papers" which many students regard as mere exercises—as make-work affairs. One student from 2002 who had worked on Jane Harvey's Any Thing But What You Expect put it this way: "I felt like a detective—trying to use every hint and clue to discover the novel in and of itself. The fact that no one else has done this in 200 years also made it enjoyable. I was proud to be doing something so important—and so took the task seriously. I actually developed a sense of 'ownership' over the novel, too. It seems like 'my' novel now." Another student from the same class observed that reading on a microfiche reader, while physically demanding, "made me feel like I was really digging up and rediscovering old stuff. It also made me feel sophisticated in a way. It was fun to know that we were part of a serious project to rediscover old literature and that made me work even harder to properly assess the material and provide the most accurate account I possibly could." The archeological metaphor—"digging," "digging up," "uncovering"—crops up repeatedly in the student accounts, and it suggests that students do in fact see this kind of a project with different eyes, and that they apply to their work a different set of skills than they do when it comes to more familiar, more conventional course tasks.

  10. Nor is it possible to anticipate what the students will like or dislike, or whether their responses will in any way reflect published scholarly opinion. A student who in 2006 took on Jane West's A Tale of the Times afterwards wrote this: "I found it interesting to be looking at writing not many people had ever paid attention to before. I also found it very interesting to look at reviews of the novels. I found it hard to believe that despite positive reviews and the impression that at the time my author was widely read, no one reads [the novel] or even seems to have heard of it today. I really hope to find time to read a couple of other novels by Jane West, and maybe even some of the other novels that people in our class chose." This inclination to read more strikes me as interesting, and I know that some students actually have done so and have drawn upon their additional experience for larger projects like undergraduate theses. Finally, one student offered this assessment of his experience: "This project was a nice alternative to a regular paper. It was enjoyable to actually spend some time with one novel that no one else was working with and to really study it. I feel like [the project] really introduced me to a wide variety of literature that I never knew existed, instead of making me write the same thing that a million other people have written on a novel that everyone in the world has read. It was something new and exciting, and I wish I could do more projects like it."

  11. If Jane West can inspire this sort of a response, perhaps we need to contemplate this student's opinion about the value of including work on non-canonical authors and works. And perhaps we should think through the implications for our courses of the recurrent observation that students enjoy reading works about which there is little extant secondary commentary. Often, students find the mass of critical prose on an Austen or a Scott to be defeating in its sheer bulk, and they are frequently unable to distinguish the really worthwhile scholarship from the less sound. In the familiar scenario, individual close reading and critical judging can get lost in the labor of culling, sorting, and stitching together the published commentary of others. In my experience, the result is often less certainty on the student's part, rather than more, and less clarity of vision, too. What too often gets sacrificed is that productive individual interaction with the text itself (and with the reading activity); when students have no—or virtually no—secondary materials to fall back upon, their critical reading and interpretive skills often are sharpened, and better written work results. Forced to rely upon their own resources, rather than those of others, they often rise to the challenge in impressive fashion.

  12. Moreover, I am struck by the recurrence of student comments about responsibility: students seem genuinely concerned about doing a good job, not just because others (not just outside their class but around the world) may see their work, but also because once they get their teeth into their projects they do take ownership of their work in a way that is unusual. Another student spoke to this point:

    There are several things that have made the Corvey project enjoyable. One, and probably the most important, is the fact that it forces you to take responsibility for your own learning. When we read the assigned books in class, you can assume that if you miss a theme or some other aspect of the story, one of the other students will mention it, or if nothing else, the professor will bring it up in class. With the Corvey novels, there is no other source of information other than your own novel, your mind, and the research you dig up. In other words, there is no one to hold your hand throughout the whole process like there is in the 'normal' part of class, and it's empowering to do all of your own work and research with no one else to rely on.
    This sense of independence, or empowerment, constitutes one of this project's greatest benefits, and it is something that is immediately transferrable to other aspects of the students' work, whatever their major or their point in their career trajectory. One graduate student (in English) admitted that she had never done "serious" research before, which seems to have meant doing more than merely checking out a few books. Working with microform verisons of both the novel and the reviews gave her a new sense of how one conducts historical (or archeo-historical research), and of how the inevitable "browsing" that goes along with examining old periodicals leads to other items of interest, items that are themselves tangential to the work at hand. This same student subsequently took up, for a course in Women's Studies, a project on "incidental" indicators of gender stereotyping evident in accounts of public social and political demonstrations, a project for which she found the microform periodicals collection particularly valuable.
  13. I have also been struck by the intellectual sophistication and generosity that emerges in student comments about the novels they read, even when the level of the writing in which these insights are conveyed leaves something to be desired. Since Jane West is already in the discussion here, let me share a different student's comment on her.

    I read The Advantages of Education by Jane West and really enjoyed it. It is a book intended for young women, but I thought it was absolutely great to read something different in a class. I am a very liberal person and Jane West definitely is not, but I found her didactic speeches and her writing style appealing. In the University setting we often focus on the books that have the closest views to our current ones, which tend to be liberal. I never understood this because I find it just as wonderfully fascinating to read novels such as this one. By reading this I was able to get a more complete picture of what life was like for all people concerning age and beliefs. In fact, I found many of her disputes with the liberal Jacobins at the time still relevant today.
    I mention the matter of generosity here because it's also been my experience that when they read lesser-known novels students are less quick to offer reductive and predictably negative comments about them. Perhaps they have all had Jane Austen and Walter Scott lionized to them too often and consequently have tired of being told how wonderful is some book to which they have taken a personal dislike—possibly simply because it is so popular.
  14. I find that students actually try to like these novels, perhaps because in choosing them in the first place they have in fact taken a first step toward ownership—and therefore toward pride of ownership. Students try to see some of the ways in which their novels intersect with the canonical ones, and they also try to figure out how and why some novels "make it" and some don't, which itself constitutes a wonderfully worthwhile exercise in both formal analysis and aesthetic judgement, even if they are unaware that this is what they are doing. One student put it this way, commenting on a project with Henrietta Rouvierre Mosse's Arrivals from India: "Mosse's novels were and likely never will be considered great or important literature, but the reasons for that are at times difficult to figure out. There is certainly as much to recommend this novel as many of Jane Austen's and there is perhaps more influence from this type of novel on the development of modern literature than is acknowledged or understood. So it is important, because it forces us to reconsider our understanding of the history and also the future of literature." That this comment came from an economics major, not one in literature, strikes me as even more telling.

  15. A few final observations. The lists of novels from which I have asked students to select have in both cases been relatively "unfiltered." That is, I have simply selected novelists who are well represented in the Corvey Collection, and I included only novels for which no previous on-line materials existed. In 2002 my list contained women authors only, because the Corvey Project at Sheffield Hallam was concentrating on women writers, and I had conceived my own project (and website) as a parallel one intended to supplement the Sheffield Hallam project without duplicating any of what had been done there. In 2006 I added male novelists, in part because the 2006 course stretched into the early Victorian era, and in part because this entire recovery project needs to bring both women and men into the picture. With both lists, I offered only the barest minimum of advice to students about how to choose a novel. "Find a title that intrigues you," I proposed as a start, "and then look at the fiches to see how the novel begins, how it strikes you as a 'read,' and how long it is." I did not attempt to steer students to particular writers or to offer either judgments or guesses about possible selections. The student responses suggest that this was a good way to proceed, even though most students confessed to considerable initial anxiety about facing this daunting project without a "road map." In fact, they drew their own, and very few got lost. One student later wrote this: "When first asked to do this project I assumed the worst: truly unreadable books with tedious language and plots either demanding too much of one's attention or too little. These books being on microfiche didn't help either!" Despite that inauspicious beginning, she wrote, she had found herself involved in a project that turned out to be "the most enjoyable work I have ever had to do in an English class, and the first project I have done here that actually seemed to mean something to someone, and that might actually be valuable." Pleasant as that concluding remark is, I can't help hearing the damning assessment of the bulk of the "routine" work we and our students do. This single comment, which in fact has been repeated in a whole array of permutations, reminds me of how important it is for us to involve and engage our students in projects of this sort, whatever our fields—or theirs—may be. At a historical moment at which the Humanities are under siege from so many directions, and when the work we do as scholars and as teachers is so often seen as of so little value alike by a suspicious public and by corporate-minded academic administrators, much depends on how we do our work, and I cannot help thinking that we would gain much if we could convey to our various constituencies some of the joys of discovery and appreciation that students seem to find in activities like those I am describing here.

  16. As students worked on their projects, I helped with questions that arose along the way, of course, as did a wonderfully helpful Microforms staff at the library—to whom, incidentally, I had given a complete printed copy of the entire assignment, with all the directions, supplementary information, and the URL for both the course website and the Corvey Project website. Not only did they appreciate having this material in hand in advance; they offered an orientation tour to my students and prepared materials for them in advance to make their work more productive. They also were simply delighted to have a professor using "their" materials in such a way, and they took much pleasure in working with the students. Meanwhile, the library's Humanities liaison prepared additional research resources and guidelines for the students and made these available to all. I should also mention that at the beginning of each course I arranged with the library's Special Collections staff to have the students visit the collection and examine some two dozen or so volumes from the period we were studying. In an age of cheap paperbacks and digital copies, many of our students have little appreciation of the physicality of old books. They are fascinated to handle the books, to feel the actual textures of the pages, to see how little (or how much) appears in typeface on an individual page. With a supportive library, one can turn a visit like this into a meaningful discussion not just of textuality but indeed of the history of the book and the dynamics of literacy and the literary marketplace (e.g., circulating libraries, cheap Minerva Press editions, chapbook redactions of long works for the nonce market, etc.). Again, students come away from their visit with a considerably altered sense of the Romantic-era novel as a physical artifact.

  17. I know that having the Corvey Collection at my institution makes it possible for me to design projects like these in ways that not everyone can emulate. But any number of variations are surely possible. Most libraries have caches of lesser known, non-canonical novels and other works—often "in storage"—that have long gone uncirculated and unexamined. Other novels are available online, like the "Novels Online" that can be found on the website maintained at Jane Austen's Chawton House. Still others may be found at sites like Bartleby, Project Gutenberg, and others, including the electronic text section of the Romantic Circles site. Another rich vein of texts includes electronic resources like Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO), Literature Online, and Early English Books Online; many college and university libraries can provide online access to these. When it comes to supplementary resources, students can find additional synopses and reviews at Sheffield Hallam's CW3 site and at the rich database of production, circulation, and reception information maintained at the University of Cardiff as "British Fiction 1800-1829". These are simply starting-points; others are coming online regularly as more and more individual scholars and academic institutions put up in electronically accessible form materials they have collected, evaluated, and prepared for online presentation. Indeed, one crying need right now is for some sort of "clearing house" for collecting, recording, and arranging all such texts and resources so as to minimize duplication and bring consistency to what is being produced.

  18. Beyond such options, instructors can develop still others that can build usefully on the kind of model I have outlined here. Students can produce annotated editions of novels, for instance, an activity that is particularly well suited to group collaboration. Or they can work together to prepare electronic editions, which can provide them with valuable experience with electronic technology and digital editing that may be relevant to all sorts of personal and professional opportunities. And when the subject is not exclusively fiction, the project can be adapted to suit. I have, for instance, now used the arrangement once with Romantic-era poetry (not surprisingly, I call it the Corvey Poets Project), replacing the student-generated synopsis with a descriptive essay treating a volume of poetry selected by the student. The bottom line, in every case, is to provide an activity that engages students in activities that go beyond passive reading and mechanical paper-writing, activities that directly involve designing and employing research strategies and resources, making editorial and literary-critical judgments, synthesizing primary and secondary materials within historical and cultural contexts, and—perhaps equally importantly—sharing the results of their efforts not only with their classmates but also with other students and scholars around the world. This whole project has produced unusual personal satisfaction for me as an instructor; more important, I have discovered, to my delight, that students find the work not just interesting but also energizing and even liberating. In an era when one continually hears about jaded and apathetic students, that strikes me as a real plus. Clearly, in such a scenario we all win.

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Published @ RC

August 2008

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