English R1B

Reading and Composition: Sensational Transformations

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Spring 2022 Hobbs, Katherine
MWF 9-10 122 Wheeler

Book List

Collins, Wilkie: The Woman in White; Le Fanu, Sheridan: Uncle Silas; Waters, Sarah: Fingersmith

Other Readings and Media

Additional readings will be made available in pdf form on bCourses. The Handmaiden (dir. Park Chan-wook, 2016) is also requried for this course and is available to rent or purchase on a variety of screening platforms; I will provide further details on the syllabus.


We may think we’re past the Victorian era, but even a cursory look at our contemporary pop culture tells us otherwise. BBC keeps churning out successful period pieces. Sherlock Holmes and Dracula just won’t die. Jane Eyre is constantly recycled in new contexts. And these works aren’t simply regurgitations: the past is always reconstructed, rewritten, and reformed. New perspectives on issues such as race, gender, and class come to light as the past interacts with the present. How does a novel’s legacy and meaning change as new works respond to it? How do authors transform recognizable plot structures and characters into something new? What does it mean that we are still so interested in the characters, tropes, and stories of Victorian literature today? What can we learn about both the past and our own time by exploring a historical period through modern imitative adaptations?

This class will address these questions of Victorian transformation, taking Wilkie Collins’s sensation novel The Woman in White (1859-60) and some of its many afterlives—Victorian and modern—as our case study. Collins’s astronomically popular mystery spawned imitators almost immediately, and rewritings of the novel have not yet stopped. But every adaptation brings different elements to the foreground. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas (1864) weaves aspects of Collins’s legal Gothic into a mystical, atmospheric tale of dread. Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith (2002) is a queer retelling through the eyes of two lesbian main characters. Park Chan-wook’s film The Handmaiden (2016) reimagines Waters’s novel in early twentieth-century Korea. Over the course of the semester, we will trace how these adaptations reframe, transform, and critique Collins’s original. We will also discuss the changing political, social, and literary contexts of these adaptations.

As we consider the legacies of The Woman in White, we will practice our critical writing and research skills. Students will write, workshop, and revise a series of writing assignments over the course of the semester, culminating in a final research paper.

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