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Inventing Britain, 1700-1830 - ENG00108I

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  • Department: English and Related Literature
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Jim Watt
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: I
  • Academic year of delivery: 2024-25

Module summary

What is British identity? What does it mean to be British? This second-year module examines such pressing questions in our times by exploring how writers imagined the nation. On paper, the 1707 Act of Union joined England to Scotland. In practice and in print, political union did little to cement national values and voices. Between 1700 and 1830, authors returned insistently to the definition of Britishness, collating values and characteristics even as they debated whether a coherent national identity existed and ever could exist. It was a time of seeking identities—local, regional, national—and a time of national myth-making and story-telling. As Britain was revealed to itself by a developing network of roads and canals, and the flourishing of print culture facilitated the spread and exchange of ideas, the different languages within the country encountered one another: not just Welsh and Scots Gaelic, or Irish Gaelic or Cornish, but even regional dialects needed explaining and translating. Over the period, as Britons wandered the globe and read more about other nations, new notions of Britishness were placed in conversation and complicated by encounters with other countries and regions, such as France, India, China, the Ottoman Empire, the Americas and Africa. Toward the close of the period, the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars threw Britain into chaos, prompting stark questions about domestic liberty and rights.

This module digs deeply into past conceptions of Britishness in order to interrogate how writers grappled with social and economic trends that placed increasing pressure on notions of belonging and difference. Theories of civilisation were central to many visions of modernity at this time, but while some loved the sophistication of the city, others feared its corrupting sprawl. In this age of revolution, writers played a major role in writing and creating new ideas about the nation and its subjects.

We will investigate how a range of authors, from diverse backgrounds, imagined the nation in this vibrant and experimental age of print. Topics covered may include ‘Commercial Britain’; ‘Cosmopolitan Britain’; ‘Touring the Nation’; ‘Enlightenment Scotland’; ‘Human Rights’; ‘Bardic Nations.’ How did poetry and other writing display new labour relations in an age of increasing industrialisation? How did periodicals market new ideals of national taste? Can we identify an ‘English novel’? How did transnational authors and subjects shape the literary marketplace? How does a four-nation model reframe our understanding literature of the period? Why did some regard Britain as supremely civilized, uniquely Protestant, and possessed of the greatest literature in the world, while others saw it as a corrupt and dying empire, anticipating the demise of Britain in ways that chime with us again today? Ultimately this module demonstrates how these early conversations about national identities and the nation continue to shape discussions in our own time.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 2 2024-25

Module aims

This module aims to develop your knowledge of the competing meanings of British identity between 1700 and 1830, a period of enormous literary experiment and social change. You will become familiar with the dynamic print culture of this period—its appearance, genres, aesthetics, ideals—by reading both broadly and in-depth across a variety of genres. Lectures will contextualize the readings within the era’s history, culture, arts, science and technology.

Module learning outcomes

On successful completion of the module, you will be able to:

  1. Demonstrate an informed understanding of and engagement with a range of texts published between 1700 and 1830, in relation to the era’s concerns and conventions.

  2. Demonstrate an informed understanding of and engagement with accounts of Britishness, national identity, and other cultural and political contexts.

  3. Examine key debates and critical issues raised by the era’s writers, including advocating for marginalised social groups, abolition, gender equality and human rights.

  4. Develop oral and written arguments which demonstrate a proficiency in critical thinking and research skills.


Task Length % of module mark
2500 word essay
N/A 70
N/A 30

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
2500 word essay
N/A 70
N/A 30

Module feedback

  • You will receive feedback on all assessed work within the University deadline, and will often receive it more quickly. The purpose of feedback is to inform your future work; it is designed to help you to improve your work, and the Department also offers you help in learning from your feedback. If you do not understand your feedback or want to talk about your ideas further you can discuss it with your tutor or your supervisor, during their Open Office Hours.
  • For more information about the feedback you will receive for your work, see the department's Guide to Assessment.

Indicative reading

Key Texts for this module may include:

  • Daniel Defoe, The True-Born Englishman
  • Alexander Pope, Windsor Forest
  • Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters
  • Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and James Boswell, A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides
  • Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker
  • William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads
  • Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Eighteen Hundred and Eleven
  • George Gordon Byron, Don Juan
  • Jane Austen, Persuasion

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.