ENGL 4604 The Victorian ‘Woman Question’

One of the liveliest of the many intellectual and social debates that raged in 19th-century Britain was that over what the Victorians called the “woman question.” This rather sweeping phrase actually referred to a complex array of questions: What kinds of characters, behaviours, values, or roles were “natural” for women? What (if any) reforms of women’s social, legal, political, or marital status were desirable, and why (or why not)? What moral standards could or should be applied to women? How ought their sexuality to be understood and depicted? What were the implications for masculinity and for male rights and prerogatives if women’s roles changed? How were differences between the sexes understood, defined, or enforced? In this course we will focus on a range of readings across genres that set and answer these questions in interesting, diverse, and often provocative ways. Although we will discuss historical, political, and social contexts for our readings, our approach will be primarily literary, and discussions and assignments will focus on all the particularities of our texts—their forms, plots, style, and language—as much as on the various ways they interrogate or reproduce conventional Victorian ideas about gender identities and roles.