Is Domestic Noir the New Sensation Fiction?

by Karen Bourrier

I’ve been listening to a lot of the bestselling (contemporary!) author Liane Moriarty on audiobook over the last year. She’s the one who wrote Big Little Lies. If you haven’t read the book, maybe you’ve had a chance to watch the HBO series? At the same time, I’ve been teaching an upper year seminar on “The Victorian Bestseller,” which includes a unit on sensation fiction. We read The Moonstone as it was originally published in periodicals, comparing its appearance in Harper’s in the US to its appearance in All the Year Round in the UK. (We also do a digital assignment comparing The Moonstone’s appearance in these two publications, which you can read about here.)

All this has me wondering whether domestic noir, the genre that Liane Moriarty as well as Paula Hawkins (The Girl on the Train) and Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn) write in, is the new sensation fiction. There are a lot of similarities between sensation fiction and domestic noir on both a formal and a thematic level.

Continue reading Is Domestic Noir the New Sensation Fiction?


Students from ENGL 388 stage a Regency ball.

This past semester, I taught a class that I originally envisioned as a “Jane Austen from Book to Film” class. But as I was planning the syllabus, something changed. I realized that just doing filmic Austen adaptations (Bridget Jones, Clueless, and of course, the BBC Pride and Prejudice) felt dated in the era of Instagram and Twitter, even if I did include the YouTube series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

My solution was to branch out into creative projects for the last two and a half weeks of class. This was a second year level class with no pre-requisites. My students included everyone from advanced English majors to sociology, geology, and anthropology majors who had not taken an English class since high school (but who loved Jane Austen). For the first ten weeks of class, we had interactive lectures and group work where we would spend two weeks on one of Austen’s novels (we covered Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility), and one week on adaptations of said novels. For the last novel, Sense and Sensibility, I invited students to create their own adaptations in the groups they had been working in all semester. Then, on the last day of class, we would launch a final ball.

I was a little nervous, but I have to say that the results were fantastic. Social media proved a fruitful arena for students’ re-imaginings of the story of the Dashwood sisters. Sense and Sensibility was transformed into a tabloid and life style online magazine. A wonderfully trashy Lucy Steele took to Twitter to announce her secret engagement to Edward Ferrars, and then to ditch him for his brother Robert. One group reimagined the uppity Fanny Dashwood as a lifestyle blogger in a trendy Calgary neighbourhood. Willoughby and Marianne now meet on Tinder, which Marianne naively thinks might be a great place to meet a guy interested in a serious relationship. Of all the plots in Sense and Sensibility, Willoughby jilting Marianne seemed to resonate the most with my class. One group rewrote Taylor Swift’s “You Belong to Me” from Marianne’s perspective (think “you belong to me, Oh Willoughby…”). I think this project allowed students to think through the affordances of social media for storytelling.

The final ball was completely out of my comfort zone, and also a lot of fun. As it turned out, we had one dance major who had previously written a paper on Regency balls. She was eager to teach us two historically accurate Regency dances, which we performed on the last day of class. After spending a day researching Regency food, dress, and etiquette, students re-imagined Jane Austen for the twenty-first century, bringing food and calling cards to the final ball, and wearing some pretty fantastic costumes while they were at it. In fact, at least two students even sewed their own costumes, which was really impressive. I think this collaborative project gave us a kind of embodied knowledge of Austen’s novels, in addition to being a lot of fun.

You can see a slideshow of our final ball here. Have you tried creative projects in the college classroom? How have they gone?



Short Sibling Sets in the Long Victorian Novel

For the past two and a half years, my co-author Kelly Hager and I, along with our amazing research assistants Kailey Fukushima and Emily Anderson, have been working on a big project.

This project comes from our shared love of Charlotte Yonge. On a long train ride back to Boston from the 2014 CUNY Victorian Studies conference, we came to realize that Yonge was the only Victorian author we could think of who depicted what Leonore Davidoff calls “the long family” in all its glory. Try as we might, we couldn’t think of another Victorian novelist who depicted sibling sets of eleven or fourteeen and gave loving attention to each brother and sister as an individual character. This perplexed us, because, as scholars of the Victorian period, we knew the average family had somewhere around half a dozen children, and yet most of the sibling sets of major fictional characters could think of were sets of one, two, or maybe three.

The following chart shows a cleaned up version of our findings so far. (The data is messy, and we’ve had to code maximum and minimum numbers of siblings depending whether you count Daniel Deronda and his five step-siblings, as one family or two.) Fifty domestic realist novels and 463 sibling sets later, we’ve found that the average number of siblings represented in the novel is 2.44, the median is two, and the mode, or most common number, is one.

We plan on doing more (surface) reading, targeted free text searches of the novels, and delving into guides to all the characters in Dickens and Trollope over winter break 2016, after which we’ll send our paper out for peer review. In the meantime, we’d love any comments you might have on our data set, visualized below. Tell us, whose brothers and sisters have we missed?


Teaching the Dramatic Monologue

[Reposted from the Floating Academy]

If your syllabus looks anything like mine, at least once a semester you’re dusting off your Tennyson and Browning skills and teaching the dramatic monologue. My personal favourites to teach are “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover” (Day One) and then “Tithonous,” “Ulysses,” and “St Simeon Stylites” (Day Two).

This semester I decided to do something a little different. I have the privilege of teaching my Victorian literature class in one of the fancy new classrooms at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning at the University of Calgary. My 40-person class has six big touch screens, and as a result we’ve been able to do a lot of hands-on work in small groups leading into discussions with the whole class.

In the past, on Day One I’ve introduced the dramatic monologue in terms of Robert Langbaum’s classic argument that we both judge and sympathize with the speaker. (The Duke is so evil! But so compelling!). Then, on Day Two, I introduce Cornelia Pearsall’s idea that the speakers of the dramatic monologue may not be bumbling fools, but might be well aware of the aims of their own rhetoric. (What if St Simeon is in on the joke that you can’t ask to be made a saint, especially by whining about the 30 years you’ve already spent atop that pillar).

This semester, in introduced a new component. We used Prism, a tool developed by graduate students in the Praxis Program at UVa that allows classes to crowdsource interpretations of a text. Students highlight portions of a text as falling into one to three categories (or facets) designated by the instructor. Then, Prism collates all of the highlights to see how most people categorized each portion of the text, which should lead to further discussion.

Prism allows collaborative highlighting of texts.

Prism works really well when you want students to highlight for two or three specific concepts, which is exactly what I wanted for my lesson plan on the dramatic monologue.

On day one, I asked students to highlight passages in Browning where they felt sympathy or judgment for the speaker. Starting with textual annotation and close reading actually led to a much more balanced discussion than I’ve had in the past when I’ve posed the question of whether we sympathize or judge Browning’s speakers. (I don’t think many students have outright sympathized with the Duke since the 1950s when Langbaum wrote his study.)

We then did two short mock trials, in which the Duke and Porphyria’s Lover stood accused of murder. One group stood as jury, and other groups were assigned the defense and the prosecution. It seems a little silly, but it was really fun, and all the same points came out that would have in a lecture or discussion. (Thanks to my colleague Anthony Camara for the mock trial idea!)

On day two, we used Prism again to highlight Tennyson, this time for sympathy, judgment, and comedy (shorthand for self-aware, motivated rhetoric), following Pearsall’s argument. Each group worked on a different dramatic monologue and was responsible for presenting their findings to the class. The groups also read portions of their assigned monologue aloud two different ways: as if the speaker is giving away more than he realizes (Langbaum) and as if he is in on the joke (Pearsall). Reading the dramatic monologues aloud helped a lot.

Many more students have decided to write on the dramatic monologue for their final paper than has been the case in the past, so I think this was a successful lesson. We’ll see tomorrow, when we tackle “Locksley Hall.” Am I the only one who has vivid memories of being an undergraduate and not understanding at all what was going on in that poem?

The Transatlantic Digital Moonstone

the title page of the Moonstone shows an illustration of a naval scene.
The Moonstone, Harper’s Weekly, 1868-05-23. Image digitized by Melanie Radford, courtesy of Special Collections University of Calgary Library.

[Reposted from the Floating Academy]

In my senior seminar on “The Victorian Bestseller,” we’ve just finished a big class project. When I found out that our Special Collections at the University of Calgary holds both of the periodicals in which Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) was originally serialized–Harper’s Weekly in the U.S. and All the Year Round in the UK–the opportunity to get students into rare books and thinking about the material culture of the text was too good to pass up. In conjunction with Special Collections, the assignment I devised asked each student to take on one of the thirty-two parts The Moonstone originally appeared in, and to compare and contrast its publication in Harper’s and All the Year Round. Students selected and annotated about half a dozen images from the periodicals–which could be anything from advertisements, to illustrations, to the articles and fiction that appeared alongside the novel–to make an argument about the difference the publishing context makes to the reading experience. They then used Omeka to mount a digital exhibit showcasing what they had found in the archives. Our class archive now explores 13 out of 32 parts of the novel, leaving room for another class to try this project again.

The results were fascinating. Students found everything from advertisements for diamonds to articles on the colonies and knots and riddles–important contexts for a mystery story about a gem stolen from India! This project was both more work, and I think more rewarding, than the traditional research essay for all involved. It was only possible because of the tremendous support we had from Annie Murray, Kathryn Ranjit, and Catelynn Sahadath at the University of Calgary Library. Here are a few of my takeaways from the project:

  • This project required a lot more organization on my part as instructor. I started planning with our Head of Special Collections, Annie Murray, back in July, and it took a lot of co-ordination to book time for students in rare books, the digitization studio, and in a special metadata session. By contrast, I just wrote the prompts for our final research paper in an hour yesterday afternoon.
  • The project also took more time. We spent two class sessions on learning about Omeka and metadata, and I held extra office hours in case any technical problems cropped up for the students. Amazingly, other than some images being very slow to load, we didn’t have a lot of technical problems. But this also wasn’t a project where I felt comfortable just handing out the assignment and seeing what students turned in. (Actually, after having spent several years teaching writing, I don’t do that for essays either, but that’s another story!)
  • Having a small class size (in this case thirteen students) was essential to the project’s success given the organizational challenges and demands for time. I haven’t yet figured out how I would do this with a larger class (for example, one of our Victorian literature survey classes that typically have 40 students). Suggestions?
  • Although the technology turned out to be pretty easy for the students to navigate in the end, it was harder for them to complete the project without seeing an example. Many of us know what a successful essay looks like, but what does a successful digital exhibit look like? Hopefully, the next class won’t have this problem, since there are now many successful examples in our class archive!
  • Many students found the project more meaningful than essays they’d written in the past. In our final wrap-up session, several students commented on how this project felt like it meant more since it was for a public audience online, and not just their professor reading it. They even asked me to let them know if they’d “done anything wrong” so that they could fix it. I’ve never had students ask to revise their papers for no extra credit before!
  • I always build in the potential for anonymity when I require digital projects, but almost no one ever takes me up on it. One of the biggest thrills for students was seeing their projects indexed in a Google search, and students were also happy to have me tweet about it.

I want to stress that I still think writing research papers is essential to our discipline–my class is just starting to write their final research papers now. But it was a lot of fun to do something different, and it stretched both me and the students in new ways. Even if they’re not digital, I’d love to hear about assignments you’ve done in the Victorian studies classroom that depart from the traditional term paper. Let me know in the comments!