Those of you who have been following my blog for a while may know that I’ve mentioned a billion times that I would start talking about uni stuff – now the time has come to actually do it! For those of you who don’t know me yet, my name is Izzi, I’m a first-year English Literature student at the University of East Anglia, and this is my book blog! Today I’m going to review Literature in History I, one of the modules of my first semester, and share my opinion on the books we had to read.
This module was compulsory for all literature students in their first semester, studied alongside two optional modules. Basically it was all about reading texts and thinking about their historical context. We discussed questions such as ‘does context change the way we read a text?‘ and ‘should we judge a text solely for its literary merit or should we keep the context in mind?‘, and we also talked a lot about the relation between memory, narrative and history, to the point where I don’t ever want to hear those words again. All-around it was a fascinating module, and a good way to introduce first-year students to the study of literature through this type of textual analysis, although I found some of the set reading off-putting.
We were taught this module through one weekly lecture (one hour long) and one weekly seminar (two hours long). I never felt that the lectures or seminars were too long, there was always a lot of discuss and more often than not the material made me curious to learn more about the topic. However, while I loved my seminar leader and all of our classes together, I didn’t like some of the lectures all that much. A few of them, especially towards the end of the semester, felt quite pointless and like they only existed to make students get out of bed. One of the lectures was about memory in relation to physical objects – it was interesting, but they tried a bit too hard to make it relate to the module and give us the feeling that it was important for our degree.
As literature students we were assessed solely through essays (yay for no exams!), two of which were formative. This means that the first two essays we handed in did not actually count as far as grades go, but were only assigned to get feedback and improve our essay-writing skills. The third and final essay was summative and counted as 100% of our grade, which is a bit terrifying (but also not really because first year is pass/fail anyway!).
Now to the reading list! The set reading was divided in three parts: full books (usually novels), literary extracts or short texts, and extracts of historiographical texts that we used as companion pieces to get some context. Each week had a theme which would surround all of the texts and discussions.
Week 3: Twentieth-century novel
Literary: The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley (1953)
Historiographical: The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy by David Cannadine
Historiographical: Blighty: British Society in the Era of the Great War by Gerard J. Degroot
Week 4 and 5: Medieval poetry
Literary: The Book of the Duchess by Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1368)
Historiographical: Writers, Audiences and Readers by J.A. Burrow
Historiographical: Dreams and Visions by A.C. Spearing
Week 6: Early modern play
Literary: Sir Thomas More by Anthony Munday (c. 1600)
Historiographical: Shakespeare’s England by Norman Jones
Week 7: How to write an undergraduate essay
Week 8: Seventeenth-century prose fiction (a bit utopia, a bit early science fiction)
Literary: The Description of a New World Called the Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish (1666)
Historiographical: Virtue of Necessity: English Women’s Writing 1649-88 by Elaine Hobby
Week 9: Romantic autobiography
Literary: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey (1821)
Historiographical: Easts by Nigel Leask
Week 10: Writing a memoir
Week 11: WWI novella
Literary: The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West (1918)
Historiographical: The British Response to Shell-Shock: An Historical Essay by Anthony Richards
Historiographical: Report of the War Office Committee of Enquiry into “Shell-Shock”
The Go-Between (★★★), our first assigned literary text, was not a bad novel, but definitely not something I would want to write an essay about. It starts with an old man who finds his old diary in his attic and starts remembering a part of his childhood, set in the year 1900, and it’s all about the fall of the aristocracy and that kind of stuff. The writing was nice and easy to read, so no complaints there, but the characters were all kind of annoying and the story just wasn’t interesting enough for me. It was just rich people complaining, which can be entertaining but just wasn’t that great in this case. I wish I could say something about the historiographical texts, but it’s been a few months since I read them and I can barely remember anything except they didn’t absolutely suck nor did they blow my mind.
Now, I’m sure there are some people I follow here who love Chaucer and medieval poetry, but man, I can’t stand this kind of stuff. Medieval English is not my kind of thing, and there’s nothing in The Book of the Duchess (★★) that I found interesting. It’s supposed to be a tribute to John of Gaunt and his dead wife (hence the title), and it’s all written as an allegory, the story being about a man who falls asleep and dreams of this knight who mourns his wife. Studying it was interesting enough (I learned a bit about how to pronounce Medieval English!) but I didn’t enjoy reading the poem. The historiographical text Writers, Audiences and Readers was incredible though! It’s about authors in the Middle Ages and how writing wasn’t seen as a job the way it is today. I loved reading about that, and the context made the discussion surrounding Chaucer much more interesting! Dreams and Visions was about dream poetry and its history, which unfortunately I found pretty boring.
Now comes Sir Thomas More (★★), my least favourite read of the semester. I don’t want to say that I don’t like plays because this is the only one I’ve ever read and I don’t want it to scare me away from the format – but as someone who finds it difficult to follow stories without descriptions I was confused 99% of the time. This follows the story of Sir Thomas More, who refused to sign some religious documents and thus defied the king and was sentenced to death. The play deals with some people protesting and then there are politicians talking and I kind of gave up after that. Just wasn’t for me! I don’t think I even read the historiographical text because I don’t remember it at all. (This post is such a disaster, oops.)
The Description of a New World Called the Blazing World (★★★★), on the other hand, was wonderful. It’s about a woman who gets kidnapped by some creepy guy and then nature decides to protect her, kills the guy and leads her to a different world, where she becomes empress and reigns over the whole world. It’s one of the first science-fiction texts to have been written, and it’s the first feminist utopia, which is already freaking awesome. The text has some problematic parts, but I mean, it’s feminism from the 17th century. People in Cavendish’s time called her all sorts of things, most of them alluding to her being crazy, yet she still wrote this, and even included lots of musings on philosophy and science (to be fair, those were kind of tedious to read, but all the awesome lady fighting later on made up for it). Women were not really supposed to write, especially about science, but here we are! The historiographical text was about women writers in Cavendish’s time, so of course I absolutely loved it as well.
Now we get to the text I wrote my summative about! Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (★★★★) is a very, very, very problematic book, which is exactly why I decided to write about it. It’s Thomas De Quincey’s autobiography, in which he recounts how he became addicted to opium. Now, the interesting part is related to the context: opium-eating was something that only people from the Middle East did at the time, so De Quincey tries desperately to distance himself from opium-eaters from Turkey and other eastern countries, and this makes for the most openly racist novel I have ever read. De Quincey is a terrible person in many ways, he is not a likable guy, but the book was just so damn interesting and I loved reading it, so I still gave it 4 stars. Shame on me, I know! The historiographical reading was all about racism in Europe in relation to opium, and it was definitely my favourite accompanying text of the semester!
And finally, The Return of the Soldier (★★★★★)! As you can already tell from my rating, this book was wonderful. It’s about two women who find out that the husband of one of them has been hurt in the war, and has basically forgotten everything that has happened since he was in his 20s, including his wife. The writing was really beautiful, I could feel the characters’ pain, and there were some truly lovely passages. Amazing novella about shell-shock, love and trying to make people happy. I definitely recommend it! (Unfortunately I didn’t get around to the historiographical text ’cause I was too busy with my summative. Oops.)
And that was my review of the module! This took me surprisingly long to write (and I made spacey graphics, which took hours, but aren’t they nice ~). I hope that this helped you if you’re a prospective UEA student looking for some more information on the modules – and if you’re not a UEA student I hope you still enjoyed reading this and will maybe check out some of the texts! Feel free to leave any questions you have about the module and studying in general in the comments below!
‘Till next time and happy reading!