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Can the Madwoman Escape the Attic?: Race, Slavery, & Nineteenth-Century Fiction - ENG00149M

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  • Department: English and Related Literature
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Olivia Carpenter
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2022-23

Module summary

Our module will examine how legacies of race, slavery, and empire haunt the pages of nineteenth-century anglophone fiction just as surely as Bertha Mason haunts Mr. Rochester’s mansion in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Bertha Mason is, after all, a Caribbean woman of ambiguous racial origins, and her madness, confinement, and escape drive the plot of Brontë’s novel even as Bertha is not herself a central character. Starting in the early nineteenth century, at the height of the Abolition period in Britain and moving through the end of the Victorian period, we’ll examine novels and shorter fiction that contain distinct themes of race and slavery. These themes may be quite overt and central—as we shall see in the 1808 novel The Woman of Colour about a mixed-race heiress who is born to an enslaved woman in Jamaica—or secondary to other plotlines—as in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), where subtler hints nevertheless point straight to violent histories.

As the module title promises, we’ll think carefully about the troubled history of how ‘the madwoman’(so dubbed by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s seminal 1979 monograph) got locked in the attic in the first place, i.e. how ideas about race and slavery during this period shaped the often-tragic storylines of Black characters in nineteenth-century fiction. However, we’ll also consider the ways in which nineteenth-century fiction makes room for Black characters to escape the metaphorical attic, and possibly to fight back, most especially when we work with fiction from the period written by Black authors.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Spring Term 2022-23

Module aims

Students will gain an advanced understanding of nineteenth-century literary history and its complex relationship with the history of slavery as well as ideas of race and racism. Students will be able to trace how nineteenth-century fiction both participates in and resists institutional anti-Black racism in British and American society. In the process, students will engage with and practice crucial methods from Black Studies, Critical Race Theory, and studies of the literary history of the novel.

Module learning outcomes

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

  1. Demonstrate an advanced understanding of and engagement with the literary history of the novel and its ties to the history of slavery, race, and empire.

  2. Demonstrate an advanced understanding of and engagement with Victorian culture and its legacies of race and racism.

  3. Evaluate key debates within relevant critical fields dealing with Black Studies and nineteenth-century fiction, Critical Race Theory, Postcolonial Theory, and studies of the novel.

  4. Produce independent arguments and ideas which demonstrate an advanced proficiency in critical thinking, research, and writing skills.

Module content

1) Race, Slavery, and the Marriage Plot: The Woman of Colour (Anonymous; 1808)

2) The Origins of a Fortune: Mansfield Park (Austen; 1814)

3) Sisters: Creoleana (J.W. Ordersen; 1842)

4) The Madwoman in the Attic: Jane Eyre (Bronte; 1847)

5) Revisiting Classic Authors: 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point' (Browning; 1848) and 'A Curse for a Nation' (Browning; 1856); 'Brother Jacob' (Eliot; 1864) The Perils of Certain English Prisoners (Collins and Dickens; 1857)

6) The Family Secret: Clotel, or The President's Daughter (Brown; 1853)

7) Writing Back to Sentimental Fiction: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Jacobs; 1861)

8) The Problem of Passing: Iola Leroy (Harper, 1892)

9) The Magazine Novel: A Pauline Hopkins novella (1901)

Assessment

Task Length % of module mark
Essay/coursework
Essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules

None

Reassessment

Task Length % of module mark
Essay/coursework
Essay
N/A 100

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 module tutor, the MA Convenor or your supervisor, during their Open Office Hours

Indicative reading

1) Race, Slavery, and the Marriage Plot: The Woman of Colour (Anonymous; 1808)

2) The Origins of a Fortune: Mansfield Park (Austen; 1814)

3) Sisters: Creoleana (J.W. Ordersen; 1842)

4) The Madwoman in the Attic: Jane Eyre (Bronte; 1847)

5) Revisiting Classic Authors: 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point' (Browning; 1848) and 'A Curse for a Nation' (Browning; 1856); 'Brother Jacob' (Eliot; 1864) The Perils of Certain English Prisoners (Collins and Dickens; 1857)

6) The Family Secret: Clotel, or The President's Daughter (Brown; 1853)

7) Writing Back to Sentimental Fiction: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Jacobs; 1861)

8) The Problem of Passing: Iola Leroy (Harper, 1892)

9) The Magazine Novel: A Pauline Hopkins novella (1901)



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.