English Literature: Victorians and Moderns
Posted: October 7, 2014 | Updated: July 30, 2019
Author: Dr. James Sexton, Camosun College
English Literature: Victorians and Moderns is an anthology with a difference. In addition to providing annotated teaching editions of many of the most frequently-taught classics of Victorian and Modern poetry, fiction and drama, it also provides a series of guided research casebooks which make available numerous published essays from open access books and journals, as well as several reprinted critical essays from established learned journals such as English Studies in Canada and the Aldous Huxley Annual with the permission of the authors and editors. Designed to supplement the annotated complete texts of three famous short novels: Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, each casebook offers cross-disciplinary guided research topics which will encourage majors in fields other than English to undertake topics in diverse areas, including History, Economics, Anthropology, Political Science, Biology, and Psychology. Selections have also been included to encourage topical, thematic, and generic cross-referencing. Students will also be exposed to a wide-range of approaches, including new-critical, psychoanalytic, historical, and feminist.
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English Literature: Victorians and Moderns by Dr. James Sexton, Camosun College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.
3.65 / 5
As there is so much choice it's difficult to say what should be included as each instructor may have different ideas. But this text provides a wide range of material. There is no index, but students can use the search function. The glossary of terms at the end is useful although the format could be more helpful by not having the initial line indented but subsequent lines in the explanation, so that the key word is at the left margin.
Comprehensiveness Rating: 5 out of 5
Q: Content is accurate, error-free and unbiased
The content is accurate and error-free. It is impossible to be unbiased, but this text indicates a desire on the part of the editor to be as inclusive as possible, given the constraints of length (it could have been twice as long--or longer--given the wealth of material in these periods, but that would not be feasible).
Content Accuracy Rating: 5 out of 5
As the primary selections are Victorian and Modern, that content is up-to-date. Secondary material will change over time as new articles and books are published, but the strength of this text is in the primary work. And my experience with undergraduates, especially in the first couple of years is that they need to read as much literature as possible to be able to form their own ideas before tackling criticism.
Relevance Rating: 5 out of 5
It's evident that the editor has a greta deal of teaching experience and can anticipate the kinds of questions students may have.
Clarity Rating: 5 out of 5
Q: The text is internally consistent in terms of terminology and framework
Yes, the text follows a clear plan.
Consistency Rating: 5 out of 5
As the text is designed for a chronological study of the material, it is arranged by dates. That makes sense. It is possible for an instructor to choose (or move over) selections as the material is dealt with by author and selection.
Modularity Rating: 4 out of 5
Q: The topics in the text are presented in a logical, clear fashion
Clarity is a hallmark of this text.
Organization Rating: 5 out of 5
As far as I can tell, yes. I do find that indentation could be larger and some pages seems to have long lines of type, which can be a bit overwhelming for students unused to reading fiction. I assume though that the formatting is determined somewhat by the source of the selection.
Interface Rating: 5 out of 5
Q: The text contains no grammatical errors
Grammar Rating: 5 out of 5
Because of the time frame, this issue is less important than it is for later periods of literature (contemporary, for example). Certainly in the section on Heart of Darkness, the editor has included relevant works (Chinua Achebe's essay, for example) on racism and various commentaries. English literature in the Victorian (and Modern) period was rather homogenous in terms of race, ethnicity, and background. So it's natural that the text reflects that. Also the editor says that he has included selections that are often taught, and that means a cumulative effect of choices made by instructors and editors. If this principle of selection (often taught) had not been used, I'd expect a wider variety of selections. But the text follows the stated selection principles of the editor.
Cultural Relevance Rating: 5 out of 5
The book focusses on British works as that has been the focus of such a course (Victorians and Moderns). A course on world literature on English of those times would be different. American literature and Canadian literature are usually dealt with in their own courses.
I did notice that Juno and the Paycock entered the public domain in January 2015 as the editor notes in the section on O'Casey, so it can now be included (the text was completed in Sept. 2014).
If it were my text, I'd probably have chosen Great Expectations or Hard Times for Dickens, Portrait of a Lady for James, Mrs Dalloway for Woolf (with comment on The Hours, both book and film), less Hardy, some Robert Graves, maybe a Bronte novel (Charlotte or Emily), maybe a Gaskell novel, and Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" and "A Hanging" instead of what's there. . . but as I said earlier, any instructor is going to have favourites.
Why is "Daughters of the Late Colonel" spread over several pages?
I would also have included more explanatory material (on the Victorian novel, for example) although there are links to material. I wonder how many students will go to there links unless they have to do so.
Plus I find it completely annoying to go a link (Bartleby website, for example) to get to a poem (Prufrock, for example) and be subjected to advertising on the webpage.
Perhaps an explanation of public domain and copyright would help?
Also a timeline of literature and history may help.
And I find it a bit odd to have Wilfred Owen before Rupert Brooke in the WW1 poetry section as Brooke was born before Owen, died before Owen, and wrote poetry of an earlier perception of the war. I would have included a poem or two by Brooke, not just a link.
And I've just noticed (although it may be my computer) that the slider on the right hand side for page numbers does not match the page number. Neither does the page number at the bottom of the screen match the page one is on. I'm reading the PDF download.
I'd give a short explanation of the purpose of documentation and the perils of Wikipedia and blogs (students should probably have learned this information in first year, but it does't hurt to repeat).
This has the makings of a decent anthology. But much remains to be done to make this excellent.
The dates outlined as organizing principles for this anthology are problematic. 1832, the beginning point, is allegedly selected because of the importance of the Reform Bill in that year. But the Reform Bill is not discussed anywhere, except once, in a footnote. No date is given in explanation for the way the anthology concludes. The final text is by Orwell and is dated 1943.
The tiny introductory essay on Victorian themes is far too short and in any case borrows heavily from the work of George Sheper. (?) Although there is nothing terribly wrong with the little list of Sheper’s Top Five Victorian Characteristics (rapid urban growth, imperial expansion etc), much of real importance is completely missing. What about the changing role of women? The huge rise in literacy? Affluence and the resultant moral anxiety? Scientific curiosity and the increasingly central role of material knowledge? Chartism and class struggle? The importance of serial publication? These are not minor issues, but mainstream and well-accepted. Yet there is hardly a mention of them.
There is no essay about the modernist era or style at all. This is a serious lack.
There is no clear delineation of this anthology as a selection of works written by British and Irish authors. The assumption is there, but it is not clear enough, especially since Henry James (American for most of his life) has been chosen for inclusion over George Eliot, for example, or Robert Louis Stevenson. No help is offered to students to sort out the status of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales within the United Kingdom. There is insufficient tackling of imperial themes and controversies, so important in this time.
Some key Victorian fiction authors are missing and could be represented at least by a chapter or two of their prominent works: Elizabeth Gaskell (an excerpt from Mary Barton would provide a welcome window into class issues so important to the Victorians), George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle.
William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Pre-Raphaelitism: important enough for some sort of inclusion. Gerard Manley Hopkins is not here. How can this be? Modernist writers: surely W. H. Auden, Samuel Beckett, E. M. Forster, and Dylan Thomas are more important than Housman or Saki or Mansfield.
Glossary appears to be mostly original and good, but a random search for a few key terms (particularly important when these terms are mentioned in the text itself) reveals that the following are missing (or, in the sonnet example, problematic): Carpe diem, Enjambment, Dystopia, Consonance, Stream of consciousness, Lyric poetry. Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets should be identified by their alternative names also (Italian and English) and the definitions improved; they are not defined merely by their rhyme schemes. Their stanza forms are more important.
Footnotes generally seem helpful and original.
Comprehensiveness Rating: 3 out of 5
Q: Content is accurate, error-free and unbiased
All biographies and introductions should be original, not borrowed from other sites. Biographies vary vary widely in usefulness and are from a strange assortment of sources. The few unsigned ones are good (Yeats, Woolf, O’Casey, Eliot, Mansfield, Huxley) and one assumes these are written by editor James Sexton. The biographies at their best (Huxley is a good example) offer not only biographical overview but an assessment of the author’s work. The worst are from Wikipedia, where I counsel my students NOT to go for reputable literary material. (The Wikipedia borrowings about D. H. Lawrence and George Orwell are far too short and inadequate.) The many borrowed biographies from poets.org are okay, but tend to be too driven by life events and not enough by evaluation or even description of the work. And why use an existing biography, in any case, which students can easily access elsewhere?
There should either be more non-fiction or (arguably) none at all. We have one essay by Woolf and two by Orwell. Why not include non-fiction by Ruskin, Carlyle, Mill, Pater? These are at least as important as Woolf and Orwell’s contributions.
The selections for George Orwell are particularly minor and obscure. Better-known selections would be “A Hanging” and “Shooting and Elephant.” Off the beaten path, but still representative of Orwell would be “How the Poor Die,” “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” or excerpts from The Road to Wigan Pier.
Authors are not always in chronological order. Housman, for example, should precede Yeats. Sassoon should precede Owen.
In a poet’s section, the poems are not always in chronological order.
Dating of poems: sometimes no year of composition is given, sometimes just year of publication.
Sometimes two dates are listed at the end of the poem and there is no way to tell which year is which. And for Tennyson’s “Lotos-Eaters” and “Light Brigade” (at least) there is no date of any kind.
Dating of fiction works: they have no dates at all, and deserve dates as much as poems do.
Content Accuracy Rating: 2 out of 5
There should be no recommendations that students go to sites like Wikipedia. For example, in the Oscar Wilde section, students are encouraged to go to Wikipedia for a definition of “dandy.” The textbook should provide more reputable academic sources.
Online links: many are already dead, and one assumes more will become obsolete soon. At least give more contextual information (rather than a QR code) so an online word search could be done to see if a link has been relocated. Some of the dead ones: films of 1984, Animal Farm, Eveline, The Importance of Being Earnest, recruitment posters mentioned in questions on page 463, link to an essay about Robert Browning on page 30, links to “Emma” poems by Hardy. There are, surely, better links to Pre-Raphaelite paintings than the ones suggested in the Tennyson resources. I am dubious about sending students to the Book Drum links on the Amazon website, since this is a commercial enterprise.
Adapt, streamline, and upload as many supplementary materials as possible to the Open Text website. Constantly sending students to a huge variety of websites is rife with problems. An example of a problem: Students are sent to a complex page at the University of Iowa (belong to Professor Florence S. Boos) for material about Elizabeth Barrett Browning. However, there is a massive amount of material on Boos’s page. Instead, just the relevant material should be culled and adapted by the editor.
Why are some poems not actually included in this anthology, but have to be sought elsewhere via a weblink? This seems inelegant at the very least. And if the links go missing, then what do students do? See poems by Sassoon, Rosenberg, Brooke, Eliot. (For Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” we are directed to a particularly unattractive online text.)
In the casebooks and study activities, there are links to essays which are quite varied in quality. For example, there are links both to student essays and to essays by professional academics. I have no objection to the student essays, but these two types of work should be clearly differentiated.
Questions and study activities feature too many comparative questions to authors outside the parameters of this anthology. Will students be able to compare Tennyson to Milton, Housman to Alice Munro, Barrett Browning to Donne and to Blake, Rosenberg to Burns?
Media links are often helpful, for example the links to:
Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time BBC podcasts, Loreena McKennitt’s song version of “The Lady of Shalott,”
research materials to paintings at rossettiarchive.org, T. S. Eliot’s reading of his own poem “The Journey of the Magi.”
Some good links to intriguing academic websites: a) Michael Groden’s work on Joyce’s Ulysses and to a full text of Ulysses online at the University of Adelaide b) University of Oxford’s First World War Poetry Digital Archive c) British Library materials on Gothic literature, for example.
Relevance Rating: 2 out of 5
There is not enough original material here for a full assessment to be appropriate. Too much of this text is borrowed.
There is a (very short) introductory essay on Victorian literature, but nothing on Modernism. This has to be remedied. There is, however, an introductory essay on World War One Poetry. Why does this element get an introductory essay of its own, but not women’s suffrage or evolutionary debates or the chartist movement? Although it features in the title, the term “modernism” rarely occurs in this entire anthology. Little is offered in terms of explanation or investigation of the stylistic challenges, political origins, and moral aims of modernism.
To the Lighthouse is the only literary work that gets its own introduction. There should be consistency of treatment.
Shaw’s preface for the play Major Barbara is provided in the resources. It should be made clear in the editorial commentary that this is Shaw’s highly polemical preface and does not function as prefaces normally do.
Question 8 about Woolf's To the Lighthouse suggests a close reading without naming it as such. This is an important technique which should be named and explained in the Glossary.
“Utopia” is discussed in the study questions for Brave New World, but not dystopia. Neither is dystopia in the Glossary. It is important that students grasp this concept / genre.
Good study questions and activities on certain authors: Rossetti, Dickens, Robert Browning, Eliot, Kipling, Yeats.
Study questions on fiction are strong in terms of analysis of theme, plot, and character, but tend to ignore questions of style. (It’s odd to discuss Henry James mostly in reference to plot, when his style is so important.) Study questions on poetry do feature style more prominently, although questions for E. B. Browning’s sonnets actually go too far in the analysis of style, focusing almost exclusively on their status as sonnets.
There is no context given for the excerpt (lines 239-291) from Tennyson's "The Princess." An excerpt needs some explanation of the overall work, and why these lines were chosen.
It is important to know the identity of A. H. H. for Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H. but no explanation or context is given alongside the poem. There is context back in the Tennyson biography and in some of the In Memoriam footnotes.
Critics are cited without context in the questions (“Otto Reinert claims…” or “Houghton and Stange interpret the poem as…”). If these were famous critics (“Harold Bloom says”), it would be understandable. But a phrase of introduction seems necessary for these names.
Clarity Rating: 2 out of 5
Q: The text is internally consistent in terms of terminology and framework
There is not enough original material provided for an appropriate assessment in this category. Since even the editorial content of this anthology is cobbled together from so many sources, consistency is of course impossible.
But here are a few examples of problems. These are examples only:
There are questions for Act I of Oscar Wilde’s play only. Why?
Housman: The biography offers too much information on youthful love interest Moses Jackson. This carries on into the essay topics. This is a specialist interest and doesn’t seem appropriate here.
Why are the additional poems by Housman not in an appendix? This would be similar to the extra poems by Hardy. Give all appendix-type materials the same treatment.
In the James Joyce section, the story “Eveline” is given 19 questions. This is far too many for a relatively minor story. The Joyce biography (from the Joyce Centre in Dublin) concludes with the information that he died at 2 a.m. This is “fan” stuff, appropriate perhaps for the Joyce Centre, but irrelevant here.
In the Lawrence section, there is an obscure question about Lady Cynthia Asquith as a character model for the mother in “The Rocking Horse Winner.” Surely this is not germane enough for an undergraduate course.
Mansfield's biography has too much emphasis on Mansfield’s juvenilia.
Huxley: far too many questions for Brave New World: for each of 18 chapters?! They are also too detailed and of questionable relevance.
Consistency Rating: 2 out of 5
The modularity of this anthology is acceptable, but that is mainly because there is so little editorial material that there is no loss in coherence if the book is divided into smaller sections.
Modularity Rating: 3 out of 5
Q: The topics in the text are presented in a logical, clear fashion
Yes, generally the contents are logical and expected. Indeed, too expected at times. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s selection of sonnets is exactly the same as in the Norton Anthology of English Literature.
But there are some concerns:
Dickens: A Christmas Carol seems an odd choice. Why not representative chapters from Pickwick Papers, Great Expectations, Bleak House, David Copperfield, or some essays from his journals Household Words or All the Year Round? Since the first two chapters of Hard Times are referred to in the Huxley section, why not provide them?
Henry James: since James was an American most of his life, taking British citizenship only near his death, perhaps a more “English” author ought to be chosen. I love James and agree that he can be profitably studied as either an American or British writer, and am happy to see The Turn of the Screw here, but if space is short, perhaps another choice of author would be more apposite.
Glossary: Titles of standard terminology guides (by Abrams, Cuddon etc) are mentioned on page 350 and 870 of the PDF but are not mentioned in the Glossary section, where such reference would be most useful.
Organization Rating: 3 out of 5
There are serious problems with interface and navigation. See my examples cited in the "Relevance/Longevity" section. There are significant differences between the online version of the textbook and the PDF version.
Here are some specific examples of formatting problems:
In Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" there are, I believe, quite particular indentations to the lines of poetry which Tennyson prescribed. I’m not a Tennyson expert, but this should be checked.
Most poems have no line numbers. A few do. Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” and Browning’s “Bishop Orders His Tomb” have line numbers but they have been run into the end of the line. Line numbers are especially important in long poems.
Layout of poems is problematic. In the PDF most first lines in a stanza tend to appear as hanging indents. They should not. This problem does not occur in the online version of the book.
Many of the poems need stanza breaks. Some have indentations in the place of stanza breaks. This is not an acceptable alternative.
Page breaks sometimes separate titles from text (see 62/63 and 73/74 in PDF).
Spacing problems with words like “twas” (see page 24 in PDF).
Spacing problems within poems: Owen’s “S.I.W.” has an epigraph that crashes into the text of the poem. See also Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters,” where a space is needed before the Choric Song portion. It can’t run into the rest of the poem.
“Goblin Market”: page numbers imported from some other document interfere with the integrity of the poem.
Formatting is needed for Shaw's play Major Barbara. Non-dialogue text needs to be treated in some standard theatrical way (italics, for example) to make it distinct from the dialogue.
Woolf's To the Lighthouse is the most bizarrely formatted of all the fiction works, with short, unjustified lines, and no clear breaks for the three major divisions in the work (where Mansfield’s short story “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” is divided into twelve separate – and very unnecessary, especially as one is only a paragraph long – files).
Interface Rating: 1 out of 5
Q: The text contains no grammatical errors
The book needs a thorough proofread. During a random check, these typographical errors were found:
On Acknowledgements page, Virginia Woolf misspelled.
Typos in the Introduction to World War I poetry.
In Joyce bio, his wife’s name (Nora Barnacle, not Barncale) is misspelled.
Typo in first line of Mansfield biography.
Grammar Rating: 3 out of 5
Generally okay. However, Kipling selections seem to have been made for the purpose of Kipling-bashing. He is held up as a servant of empire to kick around. The situation is more complicated than that. And rather than (or in addition to) his embarrassing poem “Fuzzy-Wuzzy,” why not offer “If,” which has been far more influential (even though it may not be to our current taste either)?
See comments in "Comprehensiveness" section for my concerns about lack of attention to role of women, class conflict, and the role of empire, for example.
Cultural Relevance Rating: 3 out of 5
I have not always known where within your rubric to put my comments about this highly problematic textbook. The assumption of this rubric is that the book has been carefully edited and the peer reviewer only has to catch a few small things. But in this book there are serious editorial gaps and inconsistencies. So much still needs to be done to make this a professional and reliable source.
My major objection is that there is so little original editorial content to go alongside these generally well-chosen literary works representative of the era. There should be original introductory essays for (at least) the Victorian and Modernist eras and there should be helpful original biographical introductions to each author.
I have a set of notes headed a) Good Elements b) Major Problems c) Smaller Problems d) Major Recommendations and e) Other notes, specific to the authors. I have cut and pasted from my notes, trying to find a category in this form which fits the comments I needed to make. I'm not sure I have been successful in my choices. If you would like my original document, you only need to ask.
I feel unhappy about providing such a negative review for a project which a peer of mine in a Canadian university has clearly worked hard on. I am sorry if this seems unnecessarily harsh. But this project seems incomplete.