Sheila Cordner traces a tradition of literary resistance to dominant pedagogies in nineteenth-century Britain, recovering an overlooked chapter in the history of thought about education. This book considers an influential group of writers - all excluded from Oxford and Cambridge because of their class or gender - who argue extensively for the value of learning outside of schools altogether. From just beyond the walls of elite universities, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Thomas Hardy, and George Gissing used their position as outsiders as well as their intimate knowledge of British universities through brothers, fathers, and friends, to satirize rote learning in schools for the working classes as well as the education offered by elite colleges. Cordner analyzes how predominant educational rhetoric, intended to celebrate England's progress while simultaneously controlling the spread of knowledge to the masses, gets recast not only by the four primary authors in this book but also by insiders of universities, who fault schools for their emphasis on memorization. Drawing upon working-men's club reports, student guides, educational pamphlets, and materials from the National Home Reading Union, as well as recent work on nineteenth-century theories of reading, Cordner unveils a broader cultural movement that embraced the freedom of learning on one's own.
Sheila Cordner teaches at Boston University. She has published articles on authors such as Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and has presented research on Victorian literature, Irish literature, service learning, and digital humanities.
"This is a slim volume replete with generative thinking about teaching in Victorian literary studies. Cordner’s analyses invite us to give sustained consideration to what students’ transformative individual reading combined with innovative classroom approaches might ideally achieve. The text also lends itself to pedagogical purposes through its inclusion of facsimiles of rarely studied primary source documents that are central to each chapter’s analyses."
– Sarah Winter, University of Connecticut, Storrs
"Let us first marvel at the advantages. In the first place, Sheila Cordner successfully shares the excitement and wonder of her primary research. She reads familiar texts like Emma, Jude the Obscure, and Aurora Leigh just as refreshingly as she reads the quirky genres we barely recognize as ancestors of the Harvard Lampoon, women's studies, popular mechanics, and the BBC proms. Second, the author (finally!) does some justice to the role of class in connecting the authors of these diverse texts."
– Fang Li, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Seoul