Literature and Culture of the 1890s

Module code: EN3165

Module co-ordinator: Professor Gail Marshall

This module sets out to explore some of the preoccupations of the Victorian fin de siècle as they are articulated through some of its most famous and infamous literary texts. In the 1890s, literature carried much of the responsibility for popularising the ideas and practices of the European decadence that caused Britain to fear its own descent into an irretrievable degenerative state. These texts, and responses to them, demonstrate the grounds of those fears and in some cases try to answer them.

Issues with which we will be dealing include degeneration and decadence, the New Woman, disease and the fin de siecle body, the detective figure, marriage, the metropolis, homosexuality and androgyny, the figure of the working woman, and the place of religion in the 1890s. 

We will consider the status of popular literature and the challenge it posed to ideas of the canon, and in so doing, will identify some of the major literary features of the period, including decadentism, fantasy writing, the feminist writing of the New Woman, naturalist fiction, and the New Drama. We'll also explore the importance of new printing technologies and the new audiences they created.

The module will also consider the 1890s and its literature in the light of their transitional status, and as a bridge between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

Texts to be read include:

  • Selected poetry of the 1890s
  • Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
  • George Gissing, New Grub Street
  • Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure
  • Ella Hepworth Dixon, The Story of a Modern Woman
  • Henrik Ibsen, Hedda Gabler
  • Bram Stoker, Dracula
  • H. G. Wells, The Time Machine
  • Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest


In weekly seminars, we will read texts closely, assess the particularities of their relationship to their distinctive historical moment and to each other, and identify some of the key characteristics of the literature of the 1890s. Individual presentations will provide students with the opportunity to develop their own interests and to begin to prepare for their assessed essay.

By the end of this module students will...

  • Have a detailed knowledge of key literary and cultural debates of the 1890s
  • Have acquired a critical awareness of the variety of literary forms being practised in the decade
  • Be able confidently to assess the relationships between text and context at this time
  • Be able to write authoritatively about key themes and forms in the set texts
  • Have a well-informed critical appreciation of the 1890s as a transitional decade between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries


  • One essay of 5,000 words