Syllabus: Novel Heroines and the Performance of Femininity in Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century British Fiction

ENGL 2921H Topics in Literature: Novel Heroines and the Performance of Femininity in Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century British Fiction

Course Description:

This course asks how heroines in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British fiction comment on contemporary debates about women’s nature and roles.  Throughout the semester, we will focus on the ways our subjects reinforce, question, reject or collapse tensions between essentialist and performative models of female nature and consider the ideological work being done by the representations we study.  Are the qualities associated with heroines challenging to culturally prevalent models of ideal femininity?  What qualities are consistently associated with heroines over time? What changes? Can we trace the effect of philosophical, political, social and material developments on contemporary representations of female virtue and vice and vice versa?  To help us answer some of these questions, we will be reading a selection of critical and theoretical material alongside the texts under consideration.

Initially, we will consider the shift from a hierarchical model of sexual difference, prevalent in Britain during the Restoration and early eighteenth-century, in which women were considered physiologically similar to men to a polar model of sexual difference in which men and women were deemed “separate but equal.”  In doing so, we will discuss the gendering of specific qualities as “masculine” and “feminine” and ask how the heroines created during this period validate, question and/or challenge such equations.   We then will move into the middle of the nineteenth century and consider heroines in relation to the Victorian ideal of the “Angel in the House.”  In both sections, we will contextualize primary texts by reading them alongside shorter pieces of poetry and non-fiction prose written during the period.   In addition, we will discuss historical, political, and social contexts for our readings.  However, throughout, our primary focus will be on the fiction at hand—how the form, plot, style, language of our texts—interrogate or reproduce conventional ideas about women’s nature and roles.

Course Goals and Objectives:

This is an English course that is also applicable to the minor in women’s studies.  As such, it has two related goals: first, to involve students in the rigorous analysis of a literary discourse which both constructs and calls into question binary oppositions underlying eighteenth- and nineteenth-century definitions of the feminine ideal; and, second, to call attention to the ways fictional representations of the feminine ideal may shape and reflect women’s subjectivities (perhaps even including our own).

To accomplish these goals, the course is designed to enable students to reflect critically on the depictions of womanhood in specific texts; to facilitate their understanding of the ways in which the texts under consideration complicate each other; to understand the ways in which the texts participate in contemporary debates about female nature; to gain a sense of the ways these texts and debates color women’s sense of themselves in relation to depictions of the feminine ideal.

Required Texts:

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (Longman Cultural Edition)
ISBN-10: 0321202082 | ISBN-13: 978-0321202086 | Publication Date: September 12, 2004| Edition: 1st Longman

Braddon, Mary Elizabeth. Lady Audley’s Secret. Ed. Natalie M. Houston. Broadview Press, 2003. ISBN: 9781551113579 / 1551113570.

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. Eds. Maria K. Bachman & Don Richard Cox.  Broadview Press, 2006. ISBN: 9781551116440 / 1551116448.

Edgeworth, Maria. Belinda.   Oxford World Classics. Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN-10: 0199554684/978-0199554683

Selected essays I will distribute or post for download on ANGEL.

Course Requirements:

(Forum posts – 33%; Participation – 33%; Presentation(s)-34%)


Paper 1:
(argument paper – primary text in relation to a supplementary text – fiction, non-fiction, or critical)


Paper 2 (research paper)


Final Exam


About the Forum:  The purpose of the forum is to give you an opportunity to do the following:  (1) make observations or pose questions about the material we didn’t cover or cover fully in class; (2) make connections between the texts and female subjectivity—the way women experience and envision themselves in relation to the heroines under consideration.  Forums should be one-to-two paragraphs in length.  Sometimes, you will post in response to a specific question about the text; at others you will choose the topic of your own response.

These are not formal papers and will be judged as such.  Twice during the semester I will give you an unofficial estimate of your average “grade” for the forums  (this grade = 50% of your grade for class participation).  Please note:  you are allowed to miss 2 forums – after that I will reduce your grade for the forum by ½ (eg. A to A-).

About papers:  Twice during the semester you will write formal papers.  Paper One will be a literary analysis, which may draw on some of the assigned supplemental material if appropriate.  Paper Two will require additional research.  We will discuss these assignments in more depth once the semester is underway.

About the presentations: At some point during the semester, you will be responsible for a class presentation that introduces the class to an essay that provides a critical, cultural or historical context for the primary text.   You will produce a one-page outline of the essay’s key points for the use of the class.  The second presentation is an analysis that takes as its subject your own relationship to heroines – either those we have studied or those who have informed your own sense of what a heroine “ought to be.”  As with the papers, we will discuss these assignments in more detail once the semester is underway.

About Weekly Assignments:  Attached is a day plan that includes our reading schedule for the first few weeks of class and due dates for major assignments.  The tentative reading schedule for subsequent weeks is also included, in blue (expect that I will be adjusting the schedule to correspond with the pace of our discussions and that I will be adding supplementary reading).   Please check the day plan on ANGEL on Fridays at noon for weekly updates to the syllabus.

Course Policies:

  1. Completion of work.  Students must complete all assignments to receive a passing grade.
  2. Submission of work.  Unless we make other arrangements, I expect to receive a copy of each of your writing assignments via ANGEL (in drop-box) by the specified deadline.  You must attach your documents in Word format. In some cases, I will also ask you to submit your paper as a hard copy to me the day it is due.
  3. Extensions and late work.  It’s very important that you meet the assigned deadlines.  If you need to extend a deadline, speak to me.  Final essays that are turned in late (i.e., after the deadline and without an extension) will be penalized 3 points per calendar day.
  4. Plagiarism.  Plagiarism – the unacknowledged use of someone else’s ideas or words – is a serious academic offense. Documented instances of plagiarism will be pursued through the appropriate disciplinary channels.  At a minimum, a plagiarized essay will receive a grade of F. Attached to this syllabus is the Stern College academic integrity document. Please read it carefully.
  5. Class participation. This course will require a great deal of reading and writing.  In addition, this is not a “come when you feel like it” course.  Everyone is expected to show up and to participate.  If you cannot agree to these terms, you should consider your enrollment in this course. Ways you can earn a low grade in this category include: being consistently late to class, leaving early, playing with your cell phone/text messaging, taking extended breaks in the middle of class, failing to keep up with the reading, handing in and/or posting assignments after they are due without obtaining my permission first. Conversely, exemplary attendance and participation will earn you a high grade.
  6. Assessing grades.  It is the English Department policy that final grades on student written work are based not on effort but rather on the quality of the work produced. I will be handing out a rubric for grading the first week and we’ll go over this carefully together. Grades are not negotiable. I’m always happy to meet with you to discuss why you earned the grade you did and talk with you about how you might improve on your next paper.  For more information on how I determine grades, please see the following under the lessons tab on ANGEL:  Grading Rubric for Class Participation; Grading Rubric for Essays; Grading Rubric for Presentations.
  7. Students with Disabilities. Students with disabilities who are enrolled in this course and who will be requesting documented disability-related accommodations are encouraged to make an appointment with the Office of Disability Services, (917-326-4828) during the first week of class.   After approval for accommodations is granted, please submit your accommodations letter to me as soon as possible to ensure the successful implementation of those accommodations.
1/24 Introductions, Syllabus1st chapters of Northanger Abbey and Emmeline

Section One: Becoming a Heroine

1/26 Northanger Abbey, Ch. 1 – IX (;Background reading:Excerpts from Gothic Novels (on ANGEL); contemporary essays on translation of novel reading into emotional experience via gothic novels
1/31 Topics:  Sensibility by the NumbersNorthanger Abbeythrough Chapter XIX, or Vol. 2, Ch. 4Supplemental reading on Sensibility: Love and Freindship  [sic] ( Sensibility
2/2 Topics: Readers ReadingNorthanger Abbey– Finish NovelForum 1 (by Sunday)
                                          Section Two:  Acting Like a Lady?
2/7 Nature or Nurture?“Debating Women: Arguments in Verse” (Swift, Montagu, Pope, Irwin)Report – Misogyny in the early to mid- eighteenth century
2/9 From PamelaFrom Shamela
2/14 Continued or from EvelinaReport:  Disney Princesses (and eighteenth-century conduct material)
2/16 Belinda, Volume I, Chapters I through V (p. 80)

Section Three:  Reason, Revolution, Restraint 

2/21 Belinda– Finish Volume I, Chapters VII through XII (p. 164)Report:  The Age of Revolution: Cultural/Political Background 1790-1810
2/23 Belinda – Volume II, Chapters XIII through XVI (p. 211)
2/28 Belinda – Finish Volume II, Chapters XVI through XXIII (p. 324)Report:  Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and the Debate about Female Education
3/1 Belinda – Volume III, Chapters XXIV- XXVII (p. 434)
3/6 Belinda  – finish novel (p. 463)
3/8 Fast of Esther – No Class

Section Four: The Angel in the House

3/13 Woman in White (Introduction & to p. 141, No. 7: “Hartright’s Narrative Continued”)
3/15 Woman in White (147-191, end of Gilmore’s narrative)Paper One Due
3/20 Woman in White (191-353, end of Miss Halcombe’s narrative)Report:  “The Woman Question”
3/22 Professor at Conference – No Class
3/27 Woman in White (353-551, End of the Second Part)Supplementary reading from “The Lunacy Panic”
3/29 Woman in White (551-617, end of novel)

Section 5 – Actress or Angel?

4/3 Catch up day if neededReport: TBA
4/5 – 12 Passover
4/17 Lady Audley’s Secret – Volume I, Chapters I through XIV
4/19 Lady Audley’s Secret – Finish Volume I (through Chapter XIX, p. 180)
4/24 Lady Audley’s Secret – Volume II, Chapters I through IX
4/26 Lady Audley’s Secret – Finish Volume II
5/1 Lady Audley’s Secret – Volume 3 (finish novel)
5/3 Presentation 2
5/8 Presentation 2Paper 2 Due
5/17 Final Examination

For more from this author, please see the essay in the Pedagogy section of this issue.

Nora Nachumi

Alaina Pincus

Alaina Pincus

Alaina Pincus has a PhD from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and is editor of ABOPublic. Her work explores the intersections between Jewish identity, political thought, and citizenship on the one hand and British national identity and the enlightenment ideal of toleration on the other. When she's not writing or problem-solving on the website, she likes to read pulp fiction and cook for large groups of people.
Alaina Pincus

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