The Nineteenth-Century Political Novel


Great nineteenth-century fiction explores the idea of politics in both the public and private spheres. This course offers an introduction to a range of major British novels of the period, examining how individual characters are impacted by their political and economic circumstances. Together we will read five novels – Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848), Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849), Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1855-7), George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical (1866), and Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) – and consider how the lives of their titular characters are shaped by the broader social forces engendered by the industrial revolution. 

To this end, we will discuss the formal and thematic qualities of each novel in light of specific events in British political history, such as the Luddite activism that occurred during the Napoleonic Wars, the debates that culminated in the Great Reform Act of 1832, the achievements of the subsequent Chartist movement, and the impact of financial speculation on rural and urban economies. Students will be encouraged to close read each text to discover how these writers engage with these changing political landscapes. Through class discussions and written assignments, we will develop our own responses to the work of these provocative writers, and consider how their ideas may illuminate the political concerns of the present.

Programme details

Courses starts: 25 Jan 2022

Week 1: Introduction / Charlotte Brontë, Shirley 

Week 2: Charlotte Brontë, Shirley 

Week 3: George Eliot, Felix Holt, the Radical 

Week 4: George Eliot, Felix Holt, the Radical 

Week 5: Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton 

Week 6: Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton 

Week 7: Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit

Week 8: Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit

Week 9: Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge 

Week 10: Conclusion / Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge 


Recommended Reading:

To participate in the course, you will need to buy or borrow the following five books: 

- Charlotte Brontë, Shirley, New ed., ed. H. Rosengarten, M. Smith, and J. Gezari (Oxford University Press, 2008)
- Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit, New ed., ed. H. P. Sucksmith and D. Walder (Oxford University Press, 2012).
- George Eliot, Felix Holt, the Radical, ed. F. C. Thomson (Oxford University Press, 1988).
- Elizaberth Gaskell, Mary Barton, New ed., ed. S. Foster (Oxford University Press, 2006).
- Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge, ed. D. Kramer and P. Dalziel (Oxford University Press, 2008).

Although it is not essential to use these precise editions of the novels, page references referred to in class will be to these editions. Students are encouraged to read as many and a much of the novels as possible to enhance their enjoyment of our group discussions. For those who wish to undertake some preparatory reading, a good place to start is:

- David Deirdre (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).


Students who register for CATS points will receive a Record of CATS points on successful completion of their course assessment.

To earn credit (CATS points) you will need to register and pay an additional £10 fee per course. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online.

Coursework is an integral part of all weekly classes and everyone enrolled will be expected to do coursework in order to benefit fully from the course. Only those who have registered for credit will be awarded CATS points for completing work at the required standard.

Students who do not register for CATS points during the enrolment process can either register for CATS points prior to the start of their course or retrospectively from the January 1st after the current full academic year has been completed. If you are enrolled on the Certificate of Higher Education you need to indicate this on the enrolment form but there is no additional registration fee.


Description Costs
Course Fee £229.00
Take this course for CATS points £10.00


Mr Jack Hart

Jack is a tutor and doctoral researcher at Brasenose College, Oxford. His thesis examines how the various ways poems come about can be intimately tangled up with what they're about, as it focuses on how writers of the Romantic and Victorian periods revised their work. He has also published several articles on the relationship between poetry and philosophy, classical reception, and Romantic revision. 

Dr Paul Stephens

Paul Stephens is a DPhil candidate and Junior Dean at Lincoln College, Oxford. He has published articles and reviews in several academic journals, taught courses and tutorials at the University of Oxford and beyond, and is a committee member of the British Association for Romantic Studies and the Charles Lamb Society.

Course aims

This course introduces some of the major British novels of the nineteenth century, with a particular focus on how the lives of characters are shaped by political and economic conditions.

Course Objectives:

1. To introduce students to a selection of major nineteenth-century British novels.
2. To demonstrate how individual writers drew upon specific events in British political history to portray character in both the public and private spheres.
3. To encourage students to produce their own responses to a range of novels that confidently examine and evaluate the formal and thematic qualities of these works.

Teaching methods

The course will be taught in a series of ten seminars. Each seminar will open with an introduction by the tutor on an author, novel, or theme, followed by orchestrated group discussions and short student presentations. Students will be expected to participate in class discussions, which aim to encourage a convivial exploration of the set texts, and to offer a supportive forum to consolidate oral and written skills. Additional handouts will be available for most of the seminars to provide further contextual information and to stimulate class discussions.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course students will be expected to:

1. Demonstrate an awareness of how a selection of nineteenth-century novelists responded to contemporary social and political events in their work.
2. Produce clear arguments in oral and written work that examine and evaluate the formal, thematic, biographical, and material qualities of individual texts.
3. Acquire a broader understanding of Britain’s nineteenth-century political landscape. 

Assessment methods

For students who have registered for CATS points, assessment will comprise of a summative essay (c.1500 words) to be submitted at the end of the course. The essay will respond to one of a choice of questions provided by the tutor that relate to the writers and novels explored in the syllabus. Such essays may focus on one novel or writer in detail, or compare and contrast two novels encountered in the course. Such essays should demonstrate an ability to critically examine and evaluate the formal and thematic qualities of their selected text/s, and (where appropriate) to consider how different texts are mutually illuminating.

Students will also be encouraged to submit a shorter formative piece (c.500 words) at the end of week 4. Although this is a non-assessed (and non-mandatory) part of the course, it offers students an opportunity to gain written feedback from the tutor on a critical analysis of a selected text or passage.

Students must submit a completed Declaration of Authorship form at the end of term when submitting your final piece of work. CATS points cannot be awarded without the aforementioned form - Declaration of Authorship form


To earn credit (CATS points) for your course you will need to register and pay an additional £10 fee per course. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online.

Please use the 'Book' or 'Apply' button on this page. Alternatively, please complete an application form.

Level and demands

Although the course offers an accessible introduction to a range of major nineteenth-century British novels, it may be useful for students to be acquainted with the lives of the writers contained in the syllabus, and to be familiar with some of the basic methods of approaching literary texts. The Full Reading List contains some excellent scholarship on these writers and their works, all available in the Rewley House Library, that provides a solid foundation for the overall course.

Most of the Department's weekly classes have 10 or 20 CATS points assigned to them. 10 CATS points at FHEQ Level 4 usually consist of ten 2-hour sessions. 20 CATS points at FHEQ Level 4 usually consist of twenty 2-hour sessions. It is expected that, for every 2 hours of tuition you are given, you will engage in eight hours of private study.

Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS)