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John Stuart Mill & Victorian Britain - HIS00084H

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Vic Clarke
  • Credit value: 40 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2021-22
    • See module specification for other years: 2019-20

Module summary

Child prodigy, philosopher, public intellectual, liberal MP and campaigner for women’s rights, John Stuart Mill (1806-73) remains a compelling historical figure of the 19th century, and a revealing optic through which to observe and understand the complexities of Victorian Britain, both at home and overseas. Ahead of his time in some respects – in his defence of liberty and toleration, and in his view on women and socialism – Mill was also a product of his age: servant of the East India Company, suspicious of the working class, and Eurocentric on imperial and colonial affairs. He was a philosopher in action, not content remaining in his ivory tower. Mill’s attitudes towards issues such as empire, gender, public morality, science and religious belief, the role of the law and the state, and the environment, can lead us to reassess a whole range of ‘Victorian values’, making the 19th century appear curiously modern in some ways, yet also far removed from our own contemporary sensibilities. And his writings and activities (and his subsequent legacy) allow us to interrogate what ‘liberalism’ comprised in the Victorian era.

The course is based on readings from primary materials which are available online. The principal source is The collected works of John Stuart Mill ed. John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963-91, digital edition at: Other contextual readings will be drawn from contemporary newspapers, periodicals and pamphlets. Familiarity with 19th century British history is helpful but not a prerequisite.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Autumn Term 2021-22 to Spring Term 2021-22

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To introduce students to in depth study of a specific historical topic using primary and secondary material;
  • To enable students to explore the topic through discussion and writing; and
  • To enable students to evaluate and analyse primary sources.

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Grasp key themes, issues and debates relevant to the topic being studied;
  • Have acquired knowledge and understanding about that topic;
  • Be able to comment on and analyse original sources;
  • Be able to relate the primary and secondary material to one another; and
  • Have acquired skills and confidence in close reading and discussion of texts and debates.

Module content

Teaching Programme:

Students will attend a 1-hour briefing in week 1 of the autumn term, and a 3-hour seminar in weeks 2-5 and 7-9 of the autumn term and weeks 2-5 and 7-10 of the spring term. Both the autumn and spring terms include a reading week for final year students and so there will be no teaching in week 6. Students prepare for and participate in fifteen three-hour seminars. One-to-one meetings will also be held to discuss the assessed essay.

Seminar topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following:

  1. Introductory: themes and sources
  2. Father and son: James and John Stuart Mill
  3. Mill and Jeremy Bentham
  4. Harriet Taylor
  5. France and the 1848 revolutions
  6. Political economy and free trade
  7. Ireland
  8. On Liberty and the role of the state
  9. Parliamentary reform
  10. Women’s suffrage
  11. Mill as MP, 1865-8
  12. Imperial questions
  13. Nature and the enivronment
  14. Mill the socialist?
  15. Legacy


Task Length % of module mark
Essay : 4,000 words
N/A 50
Online Exam
Online Exam
8 hours 50

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

For formative assessment, students will be given the opportunity to do practice gobbets and then required to write a 2,000-word procedural essay relating to the themes and issues of the module in either the autumn or spring term.

For summative assessment, students complete a 4,000-word essay which utilises an analysis of primary source materials to explore a theme or topic relating to the module, due in week 5 of the summer term.

They then take a three-hour closed examination for summative assessment in the summer term assessment period comprising: one essay question relating to themes and issues, but showing an awareness of the pertinent sources that underpin these AND one ‘gobbet’ question (where students attempt two gobbets from a slate of eight).

The essay and exam are weighted equally at 50% each.


Task Length % of module mark
Essay : 4,000 words
N/A 50
Online Exam
Online Exam
8 hours 50

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will receive written feedback that will include comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission.

Work will be returned to students in their seminars and may be supplemented by the tutor giving some oral feedback to the whole group. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their procedural work during their tutor’s student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline unless submitted in week 5 of the summer term, in which case these are available within 25 working days. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

Capaldi, Nicholas. John Stuart Mill: a biography. Cambridge Univesrity Press, 2012.

Kinzer, Bruce L. J. S. Mill revisited: biographical and political explorations. Palgrave, 2007.

Urbanati, N. & A. Zakaras (eds.), J. S. Mill’s political thought: a bicentennial reassessment. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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.