This Lent term, for the 'long eighteenth century paper,' the English faculty are delivering 28 male-centred lectures, six female-centred, and six with a mix.Simon Lock

As an English student whose very favourite thing is nineteenth-century novels penned by women, I’d been eager to study what’s affectionately known as ‘the long eighteenth century paper’: running from 1660 to 1870, it has a lot to be excited about, including the Romantic movement, the rise of the novel, a national surge in literacy, and an explosion in female authorship.

And yet, this year, there are eight lecture series looking exclusively at male authors. There is one which focuses on a female author (Jane Austen). Of four further series which include both male and female authors, only two individual lectures focus on women alone, and six have a mix. That leaves a majority of lectures – even in the integrated series – with a male emphasis. In total, there are twenty-eight lectures on male authors, six on female, and six mixed. More worryingly, if this term’s teaching is blatantly androcentric, then it’s even more astoundingly white-centric. As far as I can tell, there are only two writers of colour being taught, and both are squeezed into one lecture alongside Aphra Behn, a white woman whose novel about a slave is more than a little problematic. This is part of the only series (three lectures) which deals with colonialism.

“...the faculty also has a responsibility to rediscover the writing which history, hindered by the inequalities of past centuries, has left behind.”

What baffles me most is that replacing just one male-centric series, or integrating a few non-white authors into series on general topics, so easily done, could have taken a big step towards levelling these eye-wateringly obvious gender and racial imbalances. You can count the female authors whom the department has selected to bring to prominence from this two-century period on one hand. Samuel Richardson’s unrealistic construction of femininity, Pamela, occurs in more lectures than the real-life female authors, excluding only Austen. Percy Shelley alone, explicitly featuring in seven lectures and sure to be mentioned in others, gets more treatment than race does in a period which saw the abolition of the slave trade in Britain.

Despite the limitations of educational imbalance and legal and cultural double standards, women still managed to impress in this period – which the English faculty chooses to ignore. Three decades in, Mary Wollstonecraft pens the seminal proto-feminist A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which, far from anomalous, chimed with increasingly active contemporary agitation for universal education. Six decades in, her daughter, Mary Shelley, publishes one of the most culturally impactful novels of the last two hundred years: Frankenstein. Across the eighteenth century, popular sentimental novels were churned out by several female writers. By the time we approach the end of the paper’s span, Jane Austen has published her six nationally-beloved novels, the Brontës are whipping up a storm, Elizabeth Gaskell’s factory novels are engaging with imminent socio-political realities as well as Dickens, and George Eliot is beginning to make a name for herself. This female line easily rivals the numbers, let alone the abilities, of Milton, Johnson, Pope, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, and Dickens.

Neither do the Faculty’s selections accurately represent the contributions of non-white people to the literature and culture of the period. As well as a wealth of autobiographies and essays by people of colour who were or had been slaves, the first publication of a volume of poetry by an African American woman, the brilliant Phillis Wheatley in 1773, is slap bang in the centre of the paper’s time span.

“Lectures...[are] an important signal as to what the faculty feels it’s important to highlight and point us towards.”

The problem is the faculty’s unhealthy emphasis on the Romantic movement, which itself had an unhealthy emphasis on men. Of course, we need to be taught the texts deemed great by posterity, but the faculty also has a responsibility to rediscover the writing which history, hindered by the inequalities of past centuries, has left behind. Keep the Romantics if you can’t let them go, but what about the dozen female poets who also engaged in that cultural milestone? There’s also no reason why this movement should overshadow the novel, a female-dominated form, whose rise was down to the factors which shape our modernity even more forcefully than Romanticism has, such as the emergent economic forces which changed people’s leisure (and therefore reading) time.

Obviously, it’s not entirely fair to critique any individual lectures before having attended them. There’s every chance that they will be nuanced, critical and aware, and individual supervisors might be doing their own work to combat this oversight. And, yes, the more important work for English students is the discovery which they do for themselves in the library – but this is so often informed by lectures, or what members of the faculty are recommending.


Mountain View

Despite big promises, little progress has been made to decolonise the English curriculum

In the Faculty’s recent statement on its work to decolonise the syllabus in response to well-articulated criticism by the student Faculty Representatives, revising ‘the individual paper reading lists at Part I and Part II’ was championed as a successful strategy ‘to draw attention to the historical presence of writings and cultures other than those represented by Eurocentrically white canonical authors’. But reading lists are, in reality, a weak force against the prescriptions of supervisors or the recommendations of lecturers, as the Faculty concedes in the same report: ’while [students] are promised openness of possibility to writing beyond a ‘western canon’, that proves difficult to access or initiate at college level’.

Given the intense focus on the weekly essay for exam papers, you rarely have time to come up for breath and explore options outside of the parameters which are encouraged – even if they are not the only ones which are technically allowed. Like the lecture series on post-colonial studies last term, which the Faculty claims placed ‘postcolonial questions front and centre in the Tripos’, the totally unintegrated series on Jane Austen and ‘Writing New Worlds’ are laughable: far from centralising and emphasising such authors or critical approaches, it others them, perpetuating the entrenched perception that they’re novel, exotic, and isolated from, rather than integral to, the trajectory of literary history proper.

Lectures aren’t everything – especially for English students – but they’re an important signal as to what the faculty feels it’s important to highlight and point us towards. Whether you choose to attend them or not, you still read the document which tells you that the work of your sex and/or race is either all-important, or not worth prioritising.

Sponsored links

Partner links