Empire, Decadence and Modernity: Literature 1870-1910 (EASM150)

StaffDr Simon Rennie - Convenor
Credit Value30
ECTS Value15
NQF Level7
Duration of Module Term 2: 11 weeks;

Module aims

In the later decades of the nineteenth century, the sense of confidence, stability and progress that characterised much public discourse of the mid-century was increasingly challenged and complicated by emerging scientific, technological, and aesthetic discourses. In the years after 1870, biologistic and racial thinking intensified as writers considered the implications of Darwin's Descent of Man (1871). Walter Pater’s ‘Conclusion’ to the Studies in the History of the Renaissance inspired a new generation of artists to reject the conventions of Victorian morality and explore new forms of art. With the rush of modernity and the impact of new technologies on culture, the individual and the landscape, ideas of place, time, and the body were thrown into sharp relief. Focussing on key literary texts alongside visual and other prose sources, this module will examine the key social, cultural and literary issues that came to the fore after 1870, including the emergence of new forms, such as science fiction, and the transformation of existing forms such as the gothic; debates about the role of art and beauty in society; the relationship between biology and the individual; the construction of late nineteenth-century imperialist discourse together with growing fears of imperial decline and racial degeneration; the enthusiasm for racial and moral regeneration through women; the ideological complexities of late nineteenth-century feminism; and changing notions of space and time.

ILO: Module-specific skills

  • 1. Demonstrate an advanced knowledge and understanding of key social, intellectual, and ideological issues in nineteenth-century interdisciplinary studies, and familiarity with various literary styles and genres
  • 2. Demonstrate an advanced critical understanding of intimate relations between aesthetics and the social, economic, political, scientific, and cultural debates of the Victorian period
  • 3. Demonstrate an advanced capacity to analyse contemporary critical debates in the field of Victorian Studies
  • 4. Demonstrate an advanced knowledge of researching a variety of literary and other media from the nineteenth-century electronic resources

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

  • 5. Demonstrate a sophisticated and intellectually mature ability to analyse Victorian literature and to relate its concerns and its modes of expression to its historical context
  • 6. Demonstrate an advanced and autonomous ability to interrelate texts and discourses specific to your own discipline with issues in the wider context of cultural and intellectual history
  • 7. Demonstrate an advanced ability to digest, select, and organise interdisciplinary material and to trace the development of debate across disciplinary boundaries
  • 8. Demonstrate an ability to devise, research, and execute a programme of scholarly research

ILO: Personal and key skills

  • 9. Through asynchronous and synchronous learning and presentations, demonstrate advanced communication skills, and an ability to work both individually and in groups
  • 10. Through essay-writing, demonstrate advanced research and bibliographic skills, an advanced capacity to construct a coherent, substantiated argument, and to write clear and correct prose
  • 11. Research for learning sessions, essays, and presentations demonstrate advanced proficiency in information retrieval and analysis
  • 12. Through the writing of an extended essay and research report, demonstrate an ability to construct work of substantial length, detail, and some originality
  • 13. Through responses to constructive feedback, demonstrate an advanced and intellectually mature ability to reflect upon and strengthen written and other work

Syllabus plan

Whilst the content may vary from year to year, it is envisioned that it will cover some or all of the following topics:

  • Aestheticism
  • Decadence and the Gothic
  • Modernity, Perception, Identity
  • Biology and the emotions
  • The Dressed Body
  • The New Woman: Marriage, class and heredity
  • Place and Environment
  • City Streets
  • Imperialism and the Ecological
  • Imperial Romance

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching22Seminar/webinar and asynchronous learning
Guided independent study175Reading, research and essay preparation
Guided independent study70Seminar/webinar preparation and synchronous learning activities(individual)
Guided independent study33Web-based research into Victorian primary sources (periodicals, newspapers)

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay proposal750 words1-7, 10-13Oral feedback with student write up of meeting

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Literature review 201500 words4-8, 11, 13 Feedback sheet with opportunity for tutorial follow-up
Essay805000 words1-2, 5-6, 8-10, 12 Feedback sheet with opportunity for tutorial follow-up

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Literature reviewLiterature review4-8, 11, 13Referral/Deferral Period
Essay (5000 words)Essay (5000 words)1-2, 5-6, 8, 9-10, 12Referral/Deferral Period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 50%) you will be required to submit a further assessment as necessary. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of referral will be capped at 50%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Indicative Primary Reading: 

  • George Eliot, Daniel Deronda (1876)
  • Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native (1878)
  • Arthur Machen, The Three Imposters (1895)
  • W.H. Hudson, Green Mansions (1904)
  • Rudyard Kipling, Kim (1901)
  • Margaret Oliphant, Phoebe, Junior (1876)
  • H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895)
  • Selected materials available via the module’s ELE page.

Indicative Secondary Reading: 

  • Gillian Beer, Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1983; CUP 2009)
  • Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins (Allen Lane, 2009)
  • Catherine Hall, Keith McClelland and Jane Rendall (eds), Defining The Victorian Nation: Class, Race, Gender and the British Reform Act of 1867 (CUP, 2000)
  • Martin Hewitt, ed. The Victorian World (Routledge, 2012)
  • Juliet John, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Victorian Literary Culture (Oxford University Press, 2016)
  • Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst (eds), The Fin de Siècle: A Reader in Cultural History, c. 1880-1900 (2000)
  • John Plunkett, Paul Young, Angelique Richardson, Regenia Gagnier, Rick Rylance and Ana Parejo Vadillo, eds. Victorian Literature: A Sourcebook, (Palgrave, 2012)
  • Rohan McWilliam and Kelly Boyd, ed. The Victorian Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 2007)
  • Bernard Porter, The Lion's Share: a short history of British imperialism, 1850-1983 (2004)
  • Patricia Zakreski, “Fashioning the Domestic Novel: Rewriting Narrative Patterns in Margaret Oliphant’s Phoebe, Junior and Dress.” Journal of Victorian Culture 21.1 (2016): 56-73.

Module has an active ELE page?


Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Available as distance learning?


Origin date

June 2013

Last revision date


Key words search

Victorian, progress, globabisation, the city, industrial revolution, modernity, emotions, realism