The English Novel

Course No. 2429
Professor Timothy Spurgin, Ph.D.
Lawrence University
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Course Overview

Who can imagine life without novels?

They have served not merely as diversions but as companions for so much of our lives, offering hours of pleasure and, at their best, insights few of us can ever quantify. And if the speed at which they pile up by our bedside often exceeds our ability to read them, there's a security in looking ahead to the next enticing volume.

But the simple joy of reading novels sometimes obscures our awareness of the deeper roles they play in our lives: honing our intellect, quenching our emotional thirsts, and shaping our sense of ourselves and of the world we live in.

Many of our most basic assumptions, as Professor Timothy Spurgin notes, have been shaped by novels. To the extent that we see society as complex and interconnected, or view human personality as the product of early childhood experience, we are—whether we realize it or not—under the influence of novelists like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.

The impact and significance of the novel form may be especially obvious in the case of the English novel. Through the period that gave rise to the novel, England experienced a convulsive social transformation—one that produced the world's first modern, capitalist economy. Along the way, traditional social values often appeared to be outdated, and so did traditional narrative forms.

It is no surprise, then, that the great English novelists were eager to create something new and different. Breaking from traditions in which stories were usually centered on aristocrats and nobles, they focused on the thoughts and feelings of ordinary people, taking pains to capture the rhythms of everyday life. At the same time, they also reacted to a number of larger developments: industrialization and urbanization, democratization and globalization.

What insights and attitudes do we owe to these writers? How do their lives and works fit into the larger history of the novel form—and what is the meaning of that history for us today?

Professor Spurgin answers these questions and many others, tracing the novel from its beginnings in the 18th century, when Samuel Richardson penned Pamela, to its culmination in the work of the 20th century Modernists, including Lawrence, Joyce, and Woolf.

Learn What Made the English Novel Different

Although you may have read or seen film versions of some great English novels, you may not have had the chance to place those works in a larger historical context or to consider some of their most distinctive features.

In The English Novel, Professor Spurgin identifies several especially important elements of the English novel tradition:

  • A preoccupation with issues of class and status
  • A virtual obsession with stories of courtship, love, and marriage
  • A striking preference for "comedic" endings, in which virtue is rewarded and justice meted out.

What's more, Professor Spurgin relates the plots and characters of particular novels to larger movements in English history. He shows, to cite just two examples, that Austen's Pride and Prejudice responds to deepening worries about the moral authority of the ruling classes, and that Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles reflects the influence of new discoveries in science, including Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

Thus, this is much more than a literature course. Indeed, it consistently reminds us that the English novel does not exist in a vacuum.

New Forms of Literature

Although all literary and narrative forms are shaped by larger historical movements, the novel may be especially well-suited to the tasks of sociological critique and psychological analysis. In fact, as Professor Spurgin argues, such tasks are taken up by the novel in especially interesting and exciting ways.

"A great novel often seems to describe an entire society," he explains, "creating a vivid image of the relationships among whole classes of people. It's no wonder that novels are frequently described as the forerunners of modern ethnographies and social histories.

"Equally important to a definition of the novel form," he adds, "is its interest in psychology. Unlike other popular narrative forms—film, for example, or even drama—the novel is free to probe the inner recesses of both mind and heart."

In describing these aspects of the novel form, Professor Spurgin also tells how classic works of fiction were originally produced and consumed. Consider, for example, the circulating libraries on which most Victorian readers of fiction relied so heavily. These libraries, which might be likened to modern video stores, were not only outlets for the rental of books; they also exerted a profound influence on both form and content.

Novels tended to be published in three volumes because such a format enabled three people to be reading—and renting—the library's novel at the same time. And because writers were dependent for their livelihoods on having their books available through circulating libraries, these institutions were able to exert tremendous market pressure on authors, discouraging them from writing about subjects that might embarrass or confuse young readers, especially women.

"Minds Unfurnished with Ideas"

Such a notion was not unusual for that era, and it was one that had been around for most of the novel form's history. Samuel Johnson, one of the great literary figures of 18th-century England, reflected the viewpoint of the time—that moral considerations were an essential part of literary evaluation—when he proclaimed in an essay: "These books are written chiefly to the young, the ignorant, and the idle, to whom they serve as lectures of conduct and introductions into life. They are the entertainment of minds unfurnished with ideas, and therefore easily susceptible of impressions; not fixed by principles, and therefore easily following the current of fancy; not informed by experience, and consequently open to every false suggestion and partial account."

It wasn't until the 1880s and '90s that complaints about the circulating libraries' prudishness began to emerge, seriously eroding much of their influence by the turn of the century.

In another example, Professor Spurgin offers a sampling from the opening passage of Dickens's Bleak House—among the most famous openings in English fiction, indeed in all of fiction. The passage is filled with extraordinary bits of description, such as "Smoke lowering down from chimney pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of a sun."

But as Professor Spurgin points out, air pollution in Victorian London was far more than the stuff of literary detail. As the Industrial Revolution intensified, it became an increasingly serious problem, one that would persist for many years in spite of legislation aimed at addressing it. As late as 1952 people continued to die in London because of outbreaks of smog; in that year, in fact, it is believed that as many as 4,000 people perished in such an outbreak.

Dickens's familiarity with the hard realities of London life was gained by far more than observation. And it is characteristic of Professor Spurgin's approach that Dickens the man receives as much attention as Dickens the writer. For us to learn, for example, that Dickens's father had been sent to debtor's prison, forcing young Dickens to go to work in a factory, casts his novels in a whole new light. Dickens never got over the shattering of his youthful hopes of achieving some sort of distinction—even after he had done exactly that—and it is impossible for us now to read his tales of the desperately poor or disinherited, anxiously searching for a better place in life, without appreciating the deeply personal pain out of which it was written.

Glimpse the Human Lives

In the same way, Professor Spurgin leaves you with a new appreciation for what each of this course's writers meant to the development of the English novel—and to literature as a whole—and an understanding of the person behind the words.

By placing more than two centuries of great English novelists in the context of British history and showing how their lives intersected with the creation of their art, The English Novel offers a fascinating look at a form of enduring popularity and importance whose influence has been felt everywhere novels are read.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Definitions and Distinctions
    This lecture offers an overview of the course and presents some of the defining features of the novel, helping us to understand how it differed from the literary forms that preceded it. x
  • 2
    The “Englishness” of the English Novel
    After further refining our understanding of the novel by exploring its preoccupation with the relationships between individuals and their larger social world, we consider some of the most distinctive features of the English novel tradition. x
  • 3
    Historical Context of Early English Fiction
    This lecture places the earliest English novels into a wider historical context as they begin to emerge in the middle of the 18th century, a period of convulsive social change. x
  • 4
    The Rise of the Novel—Richardson and Fielding
    To appreciate the historical forces at work in the earliest English novels, we consider the striking contrasts between authors Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, the first representing the rising middle class, the second appearing almost aristocratic, confident, and secure in his own social position. x
  • 5
    After 1750—Sterne, Burney, and Radcliffe
    By 1750 it was clear that a new literary form had begun to take shape in England, distinguished by its use of realistic situations and settings. Those shared characteristics, though, need not suggest a uniform approach, as the writers covered in this lecture show. x
  • 6
    Scott and the Historical Novel
    We examine the work of the historical novel's greatest practitioner, whose career elevates the status of the novel form in England, where it had often been regarded as disreputable and dangerous. x
  • 7
    Austen and the Comedic Tradition
    The first of two lectures on one of the most popular of all English novelists focuses on the sociological dimensions of Jane Austen's work, noting her responses to larger historical forces and commenting on her use of comedic endings. x
  • 8
    Austen and the History of Consciousness
    Though Austen has been praised for many things, her greatest achievement, and her most important contribution to the development of the novel, may be her innovative treatment of human consciousness. x
  • 9
    Dickens—Early Works
    This lecture focuses on the early part of Charles Dickens's career, when he was regarded not as a novelist but rather as a writer of miscellanies and serials, including urban sketches that offered early signs of his obsession with London. x
  • 10
    Novelists of the 1840s—Thackeray
    In this lecture we focus on Thackeray's Vanity Fair, the first great multiplot novel of the Victorian Age, which, in its use of converging and diverging storylines, lays the foundation for many later works, including those of Dickens. x
  • 11
    Novelists of the 1840s—The Brontës
    Appearing in 1847, the same year as Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë take the English novel in new directions, echoing the revolutionary sentiments of the 1840s and challenging the limitations of earlier love stories. x
  • 12
    Dickens—Later Works
    Beginning with Dombey and Sons, his first mature work, we explore Dickens's development as a novelist who explores many of the deepest mysteries of life and completes the most impressive body of work in the history of English fiction. x
  • 13
    After 1870—Review and Preview
    We review the first half of the course and preview the second half's focus on the emergence of Modernist fiction, including the appearance of tragic and open endings, a greater frankness about sex, and a greater seriousness about the novel form itself. x
  • 14
    Eliot and the Multiplot Novel
    In this first lecture on George Eliot—in real life a woman named Mary Ann Evans—we will see why her career marks a turning point in the history of English fiction. x
  • 15
    Eliot and the Unfolding of Character
    This lecture concludes our examination of Eliot's masterpiece, Middlemarch, by discussing her approach to characterization, an approach that led Virginia Woolf to describe the work as "one of the few English novels written for grownup people." x
  • 16
    Hardy and the Natural World
    Like Eliot, Thomas Hardy is drawn to stories of disappointment and failure. Yet if Eliot considers the possibility of tragedy, Hardy embraces it, producing novels that end unhappily, often with the destruction of the main character, leaving us with no sense of poetic justice. x
  • 17
    James and the Art of Fiction
    Henry James is often credited with elevating the status of the novel in England, defending it by stressing its ability to expand our perceptions. This lecture traces this line of defense in The Portrait of a Lady, James's first great novel, and "The Art of Fiction," his most famous critical essay. x
  • 18
    Conrad and the “Scramble for Africa”
    Like James, Joseph Conrad explored the moral complications of storytelling, inviting us to wonder if we can ever really succeed in sharing our stories with others. Conrad is also the first great novelist in the English tradition to take up the subject of European imperialism. x
  • 19
    Ford and Forster—Transition to Modernism
    E. M. Forster and Ford Madox Ford are transitional figures, bridging the gap between the 19th and 20th centuries. This lecture concentrates on their relationship to earlier traditions and their anticipation of later ones, examining Forster's Howard's End and A Passage to India, and Ford's The Good Soldier. x
  • 20
    Lawrence and the “Bright Book of Life”
    With the appearance of D. H. Lawrence, the transition to Modernism is complete. Lawrence uses his works to raise questions about everything from industrialization to homosexuality. x
  • 21
    Joyce—Dublin and Dubliners
    In the first of two lectures on James Joyce, we examine both his early stories and his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which builds on the foundations laid by Austen and James and paves the way for Ulysses. x
  • 22
    Joyce—Realism and Anti-Realism
    We examine Ulysses, the novel usually considered Joyce's greatest achievement, and see how its simultaneous affirmation and negation of Realism sets him apart from other novelists and makes him one of the most important figures in the history of the novel form. x
  • 23
    Woolf and the Poetic Novel
    With Lawrence and Joyce, Woolf stands among the greatest writers of the modern age, crafting an art of shifting surfaces and obscure depths. Yet even as her work exhibits startling originality, it also acknowledges her debts to earlier writers. x
  • 24
    The Impact of the Novel
    In reviewing the second half of the course and considering the reasons for concluding our study in the 1920s, we also note a number of more recent writers—among them Salman Rushdie, Pat Barker, Zadie Smith, and Ian McEwan—and take a final measure of the novel's impact on our world. x

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  • 160-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
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Your professor

Timothy Spurgin

About Your Professor

Timothy Spurgin, Ph.D.
Lawrence University
Dr. Timothy Spurgin is the Bonnie Glidden Buchanan Professor of English Literature and Associate Professor of English at Lawrence University, where he has taught for more than 15 years. He received his B.A. at Carleton College and his M.A. and Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Virginia. A respected and admired lecturer, Professor Spurgin teaches courses on Romanticism, contemporary critical theory, and the...
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Reviews

The English Novel is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 71.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent information So far, I'm only a couple of lessons in, but I am enjoying the course tremendously, having emphasized British literature in my master's and doctorate programs. I would have given this five stars, but I wished the professor were speaking directly to me with video to go along with the narrative, like I did in the "Building Great Sentences" course.
Date published: 2019-09-30
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Mediocre at best I looked forward very much to this course, because I very much enjoy many English novels and novelists. I hoped to have my enjoyment deepened and to learn new things. Instead I learned almost nothing new and was mostly bored. A lot of time was spent quoting critics; I got the feeling that the lecturer thought he was supposed to update me on the issues and status of the world of literary criticism, which did not interest me. He repeatedly talked much about how much he loved various works or how strongly he recommended them, but never communicated why. The only memorable moment in the whole course was a very effective reading of a passage from _Ulysses_. If he had read other characteristic pages of other authors and read them well, it might have begun to show how these novels are great.
Date published: 2019-08-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging in every way I wish I could give this even more stars. My favorite Great Course to date.
Date published: 2019-07-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful Course These lectures will not disappoint. I have an interest in English Literature and the background information is well structured. The professor knows the material well and the history around it. Most students find English novels dull, but these lectures bring it to life, and emphasize their historical significance.
Date published: 2019-06-01
Rated 1 out of 5 by from poor presented Rambling topcs 31 march 2019 Great Courses : The English Novel # 2429 Presentation is very bad – mumbles, reads all, never strays more than a few feet from the podium. Never looks at the camera Jumps around from English novels to German novels, no sensible reason “Graphs” are only pictures of people, even then not well annotated Mainly reading from the novel, with limited interpretation or meaning. No basis of why these particular novels were chosen. One star, this one is going back
Date published: 2019-03-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best presented programs I have listened to-eye opening about descriptions and interpretations of English literature.
Date published: 2019-01-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from good presentation of the subject Very enjoyable. Good grasp of the subject matter. Especially liked the professor's coverage of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens
Date published: 2018-12-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I have not yet completed the entire course. I have the audio download and tend to listen to a lesson while on an exercise bike, so I probably do not absorb all that I should. Having admitted that, however, the course has provided a wonderful overview of the development of the novel form in England, and has inspired me already to read at least two of the novels covered (Pride and Prejudice and Emma), which I had never read before, and my appreciation for them is much augmented by the lessons learned from the course.
Date published: 2018-12-12
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