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Course Details

Course Overview

What is a novel? And why did the novel rise to pre-eminence when it did, in Western societies? Is it a literary form unique to Western modernity, or have novel emerged in other times and places, out of quite different cultural traditions? On the one hand, a novel is just another text (or document) to historians: they ask the same kind of question of novels as they do of state papers, baptism records, a shopping list from 1785; or an epic poem, a 1930s detective story, or a Bollywood film from 2002. Historians ask: who produced this text or document? In what social circumstances did this Treasury minute, list of applicants for poor relief, or penny dreadful from 1860, emerge? Who were its readers (did anyone read it, at the time it was produced?), and what personal or political uses did they make of their reading?

But if novels are `just another text’ for historians, their status is complicated by the large-scale historical theses (from the emergence of nationalism to the development of individualism, that have been articulated around the idea of the novel and its emergence.

History and the Novel examines novels as historical documents at the same time as it explores historical arguments about `the rise of the novel’. It asks questions about the historian’s relationship with documents or artefacts like novels. Does your own experience of reading in general, and of reading novels in particular offer any insight into the experience of readers in the past? `

History and the Novel aims to answer these questions by treating novels as a social and cultural artefacts, produced and consumed in particular historical circumstances. It will introduce you to ways of using novels as sources of historical evidence, and the use of literary and textual analysis for the purposes of historical research. It is designed to complement the first-year History core module (The Making of the Modern World, 1750-2000), as well as adding to existing History option modules, through discussion of the dominant literary form of modernity. It should add to your repertoire for research, thinking, and writing across all the modules you take.

In 2009-10 we will use three novels to focus on-going discussion of the relationship between social worlds and literary forms. You should attempt to read Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740), George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1873) and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (1996) before the course begins. (They are very long novels!) We will return again and again to the questions of history and politics, the relationship between individual and society and self-definition and identity that they raise.

Aims and Outcomes

The module aims to do the following:

  1. to provide you with a critical introduction to the use of a form of writing (`the novel’) as a historical source and to the scholarly literature relating to it;
  2. to encourage you to understand the uses of writing in society, and the means by which people in the past have been taught to read and appropriate texts;
  3. to invite you to question the idea of `the novel’ as a marker of Western modernity and to investigate the emergence of extended fictional prose narrative, in extra-European contexts.

These aims will be partly achieved by asking you to pay attention to your own practice of reading a variety of texts, through the keeping of a reading diary. You will be encouraged to reflect on what has made you the kind of reader you are, of different kinds of text, throughout the course. See The Reading Diary. 

The intended outcomes are that by the end of the module you should

  1. Have gained further development in study, writing, and communication skills, including the scrutiny and analysis of literary texts.
  2. Have acquired a knowledge of the 17th- and 18th-century emergence of the novel in England, from a matrix of print culture, and the role of audiences and readerships in the making of literary forms.
  3. Have opinions about the novel as a literary form `unique to the West’.
  4. Be able to assess and use a variety of theoretical approaches, from the sociology of literature, socio-linguistics, the history of the book, of print culture, and of literacy, in your account of the novels you have read.
  5. Have acquired familiarity with the uses of material held on the World Wide Web and in electronic data-bases for historical and literary analysis of the novel.
  6. Be able to reflect on yourself as reader, produced in particular social and educational circumstances, and to discuss novel-readers in the past in these terms.
  7. Be able to use the techniques of literary analysis for the purposes of historical inquiry, and to assess their value for the historian.
Examinations: 2nd years: 2 or 3 hours (50% or 100%)
assessed and
non-assessed: 1st years: 3 x 2000 word non-assessed essays AND 1 x 4500 word assessed essay (50% + 50%)
 2nd years: 3 x 2000 word non-assessed essays AND 1 x 4500 word assessed essay (50%)


 The Reading Diary

These are brief notes of guidance. We will discuss setting up and analysing a Reading Diary in seminars. The idea is to compile a full record of everything you read (from journal articles to newspapers, from e-mails to Middlemarch) so that you can build up a picture of yourself as a reader, the time it takes you to read different types of material, and the circumstances in which you do different kinds of reading. This will become your own data-bank for comparing your experience with that of readers in the past. You may come to use your notes as a means of reflecting on how you were taught (and are still being taught) to read.

A small notebook that you can carry around is probably the best way of keeping the Diary, though you will probably want to type up your records from time to time, as you work out how much of your time you spend reading different kinds of material, and how you operate as a reader with different kinds of text.


Resources for Study

You can do a great deal of preparation for seminars and essay writing by using internet data-bases and collections of books. The first seminar – a kind of introductory session – will introduce you to ways of finding readings for the first seminar proper in Week 3.

The full text of pre-1800 novels and other texts will be found in EEBO (Early English Books On Line) and ECCO (Eighteenth-Century Collections On Line). These are valuable resources. They allow you to track the publication history of books, and, by using full-text searching, to begin to assess reader response to certain novels. You should become familiar with LION (Literature on Line) which will allow you to search literary texts in English by phrase, keyword and genre. The MLA Index (Modern Languages Association of America) is the major data-base of publications in literary studies. You should check it regularly to find the latest criticism on the novels you are reading. You may also find scholarly discussion of the novel, and of the history of literacy and reading in Historical Abstracts; you want to be particularly alert to the ways in which historians discuss and use novels. Get into the habit of running the names of authors through the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on-line (for British and former Commonwealth writers). Other national dictionaries of biography and Dictionaries of Authors can often be located by simply searching the internet with the name of the writer you are interested in. Make it a habit to regularly check the Royal Historical Society Bibliography to discover publications on the novel, novel writers, and readers. The Reading Experience Database 1450‑1945 (RED) is also a useful resource.

Keep an eye on `The Story of the Novel’ was first broadcast on Channel 4 in June 2007. The website promises on-going discussion of the novel, past, present and future. It contains a useful glossary of literary terms and a time-line of developments in the novel form. (Be warned: I shall know if you use its `Bluffer’s Guide’ in essays.)

Find,2109130,00.html, which is the on-line version of an article published in the Saturday Review section of the Guardian on 23rd June 2007. Well-known novelists describe the memorable novels they have read whilst travelling. You may be able to use these accounts as a model for writing about your own experience of reading, along with those provided by Francis Spufford in The Child the Books Built, and by Alberto Manguel in the first and last chapters of A History of Reading. (See Bibliography.)

Become familiar with various dictionaries and glossaries of literary terms, and dictionaries of social thought and ideas. You will often want to know what a critic or a literary theorist means by `Romanticism’, `point-of-view’, `voice’, `character’ (the list is endless) and I particularly recommend M. H. Abrams’ Glossary f Literary Terms (most recent edition). Some of his definitions have been extracted and are easy to find on-line. The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought is invaluable for defining all manner of modern concept and idea.

Listen to the radio and read the newspapers. BBC Radio 4 frequently broadcasts reviews and discussions of the novel (in programmes such as `Front Row’, `Saturday Review’, `In Our Time’, `A Good Read’, `Radio 4 Book Club’). The broadsheet Sunday review sections will help you keep up with recent publications. John Mullan’s column, the `Guardian Book Clubin the Saturday edition of the paper is revealing of how modern readers are `taught’ to read novels. Make it a habit to look through The Times Literary Supplement (weekly) and the London Review of Books (monthly) for reviews of novels when you visit the Library.

Seminar Reading

Find the digitalised versions of book chapters and extracts marked by going to the A-Z index on the Library homepage and choosing 'Course Extracts'; or go to and look under the `History and the Novel Course Code’: HI 170. Everything that can legally be digitalised, has been digitalised. International copyright law dictates that the Library can only digitalise one chapter or one fifth of a published book, whichever is the smaller portion. You will not therefore find all assigned readings from a book on-line. Sometimes you must rely on the Library’s hardcopy. If a journal article or book chapter has been placed in the Short Loan Collection (SLC) - because it cannot legally be digitalised/is from a journal not on-line and not subscribed to by the Library - you can find it by typing its title into the Catalogue search page.

Check the availability of journal articles in the Library Catalogue. Search with Journals. You will either be shown a link (sometimes several links) to the journal in question, or directed to the Library’s hard copy.