Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Discovering Literature

The British Library recently launched an excellent new educational website, Discovering Literature, which collects together over 8000 pages of information on a selection of Romantic and Victorian texts. Featuring 25 short documentary films, 165 specially-commissioned articles, and 30 lesson plans, the site draws on the expertise of leading academics to create a compelling and rich resource.

Designed to provide introductions to a variety of writers and their works, the site also offers an extensive range of contextual material such as photographs of artefacts, artworks, letters, manuscripts, and newspapers. Accessible to those completely new to these periods of literature, the articles and short films also have the advantage of being thought-provoking, leaving the site’s users not only with the desire the explore the texts further, but also with ideas about how they might approach these works.

At present, the site has 22 featured authors, spanning some of the big names of the Romantic and Victorian periods: Austen, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Dickens, Tennyson, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, Hardy, and Wilde are all represented. I was pleased to see H. G. Wells included in the list, with links to related articles on degeneration, the end of the world, and contemporary imaginings of the future. Marcus Waithe’s article on Victorian utopias was particularly interesting, taking readers beyond Wells into Morris’s News from Nowhere, Butler’s Erewhon, and – a particular favourite of mine – Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race. Rather than separating the Romantic and Victorian periods, these articles consider the Romantic heritage upon which the Victorians drew, referencing Humphry Davy and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Last Man.

Jane Austen, by her sister Cassandra
The site is intuitive to use, so it’s easy to locate relevant information, but it really comes into its own as a space to browse and explore at leisure. The biography of Jane Austen, for example, leads onto some fantastic articles on Austen’s juvenilia, courtship, love and marriage in her work, and the impact of the Napoleonic Wars in Britain. The user can then look at a variety of high-quality photographic images of artefacts (including Austen’s needle case), browse the manuscripts of selected letters, and watch the videos ‘Jane Austen: Class and Marriage’ and ‘Jane Austen: Gender and Morality’.

Discovering Literature also includes a collection of carefully-designed teaching resources, including lesson plans on Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion; Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ and ‘The Chimney Sweeper’; and Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’. While these downloadable PDF packs, aimed at those teaching GCSE and A-level students, are not suitable for undergraduates, academics may well find them useful when planning outreach activities at their institutions.

A lively, engaging, and – crucially – free resource, Discovering Literature will make Romantic and Victorian literature more accessible for non-academic readers. It should also be useful for undergraduates studying these periods in detail for the first time, with an afternoon spent browsing the site introducing students to some key authors, texts, themes, and contexts. The project is earmarked for expansion, with the site promising to incorporate other eras – including the twentieth century – in the future. I'm very impressed with the quality and breadth of the material available so far, and look forward to seeing where the project goes next.

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