MA in English
The MA in English presents students with an exciting range of topics and periods, from the Renaissance stage to minority literatures in contemporary Britain. We deploy our distinctive research strengths, and our world-leading literary collections, to produce a degree that embodies the best of contemporary critical and archival work. You can choose to follow a specific study track, focusing entirely on the Renaissance, the Victorians, or the Modern and Contemporary (including creative writing options), or you can make your own combinations of different periods and critical and creative practices.
- Freedom of choice to build your own pathway
- Small group teaching
- Involvement with unique archival materials
- Careful guidance at every stage, from beginning graduate study to drafting your dissertation
There are two autumn-term core modules.
- Modern English Studies introduces students to some of the key structuring ideas of the field, from large period labels (Victorian, Early Modern, Modern, Contemporary), to specific contexts (from early modern theatrical convention to writing and reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa). After 5 weeks of plenary sessions, you will choose one of Early Modern, Victorian, and Modern and Contemporary strands to complete the term.
- Materiality and Textuality introduces students to research, editorial, and bibliographical techniques, with an emphasis on working in our literary archives.
You may choose options from different periods, or you may group them according to the following tracks:
THE RENAISSANCE TRACK
We have an unusual concentration of experts in Renaissance Studies. They have written books on: the secret political histories of the seventeenth century (Rebecca Bullard); staging foreign cultures and identities (Mark Hutchings); Renaissance utopias (Chloe Houston); politics and religious performance (Mary Morrissey); friendship and writing (Michelle O'Callaghan). We also benefit from the activities of the Early Modern Research Centre, which organises guest lectures and conferences. This track offers a scholarly assessment of some of the most vital themes and issues in the field, spanning the stage, poetry, prose narrative and sermons.
THE VICTORIAN TRACK
This track covers an array of canonical and non-canonical writings, from Dickens to sensation fiction to lyric poetry. It draws on our unique holdings on Oscar Wilde and the 1890s, and our strong relationships with the London museums. We offer research-led teaching by scholars who have written books on: Dickens and medicine (Andrew Mangham); the Victorian body (Lucy Bending); evolution and writing (John Holmes); book history (Andrew Nash); sexual identity and dance (Peter Stoneley).
THE MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY TRACK
This track has a geographical span from the Caribbean to Ireland, from the United States to the United Kingdom. We offer study opportunities on writing and migration, postcolonialism and after, and modern and contemporary drama. The practice-based component of this track is also a key feature, with creative writing tutorials and workshops across different genres. Our critics and literary historians on this track include authors of books on minority literature in Britain and the United States (Cheyette), postcolonial writing and theory (Alison Donnell), Anglo-Jewish identities (David Brauner), and modernism (Steven Matthews, Peter Robinson). We have a number of leading Beckett specialists, including Mark Nixon and Conor Carville. Our creative writers include prize-winning novelists and poets, including Patrick Flannery and Kate Bassett.
Samuel Beckett was one of the leading authors and intellectual figures of the twentieth century. In his searing theatrical images and prose writings, Beckett achieved a spare beauty and vision of human suffering, shot through with dark comedy and humour. Beckett is the figure who, perhaps more than any other writer or intellectual in mid-century Europe, articulated the crisis of civilization in the post-war era. It is, therefore, a tremendous cultural and scholarly resource that the biggest collection of Beckett papers in the world is housed in the University of Reading, under the aegis of the Beckett International Foundation. Students of this module will be encouraged to make use of this Archive, in a module that will examine Beckett's work in drama, prose, poetry and non-fiction, and in different media such as TV and film. As well as undertaking close textual analysis, it will place Beckett's work in relation to his life and wider cultural contexts. Topics to be discussed in seminars will include Beckett's relationship to intellectual currents such as modernism/post-modernism; the impact on his work of psychology, the visual arts, and his wide reading in theology and philosophy; and his relationship to Ireland, to Europe and to the political contexts from which he wrote. Supported by the expertise of internationally renowned scholars who have ensured that the University of Reading has remained the centre of Beckett Studies for over 30 years, this module offers a unique opportunity to study the experimental and challenging work of Samuel Beckett.
The historical violence of slavery and colonialism created a meeting point of three continents in the Caribbean - Africa, Asia and Europe. In the twentieth century, the islands of the Anglophone Caribbean have produced a significant body of literature valued for its creative engagement with the colonial legacy, its role in forging of new national identities and its continued transformation of the English language. Often theorised as a utopia space of resistance, cultural flux and syncretism on the one hand, and as a regressive, homophobic 'small' place on the other, more recent Caribbean literary works have explored the issues and debates about ethnicity, gender, sexuality and diasporic identities that continue to be intellectually and politically urgent.
This module will examine the role of Anglophone Caribbean literary works in redressing the colonial perspectives of history, place, language and identity. To this end, its theoretical framework will draw upon many of the key concepts of literary post-colonialism. A wide range of literary works will be examined, supplemented by audio and DVD material to offer a wider cultural context. Focusing on the themes of history, nation, language, gender, sexuality, creolization and diaspora, we will read narratives from throughout the twentieth century by writers such as Una Marson, C.L.R. James, George Lamming, Kamau Brathwaite, Derek Walcott, Jamaica Kincaid, Michelle Cliff, Lawrence Scott, Shani Mootoo and Ramabai Espinet.
CREATIVE AND CRITICAL WRITING
By means of a weekly seminar, this module will provide you with the opportunity to workshop some of the creative writing that you will submit as your dissertation-portfolio. The number of students in each seminar group will be limited to ten, so that small group cohesion can be developed, and so that you each two-hour workshop can be focused solely on your work. You will keep a learning journal of your weekly responses to the work of fellow students, and your responses to their critical assistance with your own. This learning journal will be submitted for credit at the end of the term. (Your workshop creative writing, in revised form, will be put towards the work submitted in your portfolio at the dissertation deadline). The module will also introduce you critically to the practice of reviewing within your genre, and its evolving rhetoric of criticism and praise. You will choose a book published during the first term of your particular academic year within the writing genre that you have chosen to follow, and will also submit for credit a review of that volume.
DIASPORAS OF THE MIND - MINORITY LITERATURE IN BRITAIN
This comparative module will bring together a diverse group of contemporary literary texts and cultural histories which cross racial, ethnic and national divides in Britain. The authors on the course will be read together with an eclectic group of critical theorists and cultural historians all of whom attempt to rethink present-day identity politics. Theoretical concepts that we will discuss include: "Identity Politics", "Postethnicity", "Multiculturalism", "Cosmopolitanism", "Minority", "Race", "Hybridity", "Diaspora", "Community", "Universalism", "Particularism" and "Britishness". The module will identify some of the main trends in contemporary British fiction and situate them in historical context.
The module explores the relationship between a range of contemporary minority British fiction with regard to the theory and practice of multiculturalism and cultural pluralism. Through detailed discussion of the work of Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Caryl Phillips, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Kazio Ishiguro, Clive Sinclair, Elaine Feinstein and Zadie Smith it examines the use and misuse of such categories as "Postcolonial", "Black-British", "British-Jewish" and "British-Asian" in relation to recent debates, both general and within the academy, concerning the growth of a plural British identity. Thus the module explores contemporary literature in relation to these debates and notions of a twenty-first century Britishness.
IDENTITY AND OTHERNESS IN THE EARLY MODERN PERIOD
This module aims to provide knowledge and understanding of the variety and complexity of the representation of 'identity' and 'otherness' in the early modern period in a range of literary forms. At the beginning of the module students will be introduced to recent developments in early modern studies, with particular emphasis on the emergence of a new focus on the representation of 'otherness' and 'difference'. The module will begin by exploring the form of the traveller's tale as it is employed in Thomas More's Utopia. Issues of religious difference that were played out in violent divisions throughout the period will be addressed though a range of texts that explore the varieties of difference, from Spenser's View of the Present State of Ireland to Marlowe's Jew of Malta. Students will also address the representation of 'difference' in the playhouse, from Jacobean plays, such as The Travels of the Three English Brothers (1607) to late seventeenth and early eighteenth century plays, such as The Ambitious Step-Mother (1701). A key feature of the module is the reader-critic's terms of engagement with different kinds of text, paying attention to contexts of genre, production, audience, and reception. Topics for consideration will include: early modern England's relations with Europe and the Islamic world; the role (and status) of the traveller-figure; perceptions of religion, trade, race, and identity; the conventions of theatrical representation; and the complexity of textual representation in the various literary forms examined in the course.
LITERATURE AND THE NEW SCIENCE
Over the nineteenth century, science became ever more central to British culture. New discoveries in chemistry, physics, geology, biology and medicine transformed how people understood the world they lived in and their own place within it, even as the new technologies and industries which rested on scientific innovation transformed their physical world. In this module we explore how these transformations were examined and grappled with in Victorian literature. We look too at the writings of the Victorian scientists themselves, to see how they articulated their discoveries, theories and new visions of the world.
In the first half of term, we will consider the new emphasis on scientific methods and technologies, looking at how Victorian novelists, poets and artists sought to model their work on science, how they articulated and called into question the ideal of scientific progress, and how they represented the scientist in action in their work. In the first five weeks we will study fiction by George Eliot and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, poetry by Tennyson, Browning and Robert Bridges, and the paintings, poetry and art theory of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. This section of the module will close with a visit to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
In the second half of term, we will focus in on the most profound change in the Victorian worldview effected by science: the theory of evolution. We will read the central scientific work of the period - Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species - along with writings by other scientists and theorists who conceived of evolution in different ways to Darwin's own theory of natural selection. We will consider the social, political and religious conclusions that were extrapolated from evolutionary theory, and how they were addressed and explored in poetry and science fiction in the Victorian period and into the twentieth century.
This module explores the career of Philip Roth, by common consent the most important living American novelist and one of the most significant figures in Anglophone post-war fiction. For so long an enfant terrible of the American literary world, Roth may now be considered one of its elder statesmen. He has published twenty-seven works of fiction in an oeuvre that spans high seriousness (Letting Go (1962)) and low humour (The Great American Novel (1973)), expansive monologue (Portnoy's Complaint (1969)) and elliptical dialogue (Deception (1990)), spare realism (When She Was Good (1967)) and extravagant surrealism (The Breast (1972)), historical fiction (the 'American Trilogy' (1997-2000)) and counter-factual narratives (The Plot Against America (2004)). He has won every major domestic and international literary award, with the exception of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and continued to publish prolifically and generate controversy well into his seventies. Although he announced his retirement in 2012, he remains an influential and culturally conspicuous contemporary literary presence.
The module will examine Roth's fiction, alongside his non-fiction and the extensive body of critical work on him, in a number of different contexts: as part of a tradition of comic fiction that encompasses European modernists such as Kafka, Gogol and Schulz, as well as American contemporaries such as Bellow, Malamud and Heller; as a chronicler of, and commentator on, American post-war history; as a postmodernist author of 'counterfactual', (self-)deconstructive narratives; as a social and political satirist; and as a self-consciously male Jewish author, who has repeatedly explored questions of gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity.
THE UNRULY STAGE IN SHAKESPEARE'S LONDON
What was the place of the stage in Renaissance England? How is the theatre and its cultural role to be understood? On the one hand, theatrical companies served the court, providing entertainment for the monarch; on the other, plays threatened public order through their illicit pleasures and dangerous debates. This module provides the opportunity to explore the contradictory status of the Renaissance theatre through a range of optional topics. Theatre, the state and censorship provides one avenue for addressing this issue, through the study of censored plays, such as Shakespeare's Richard II and Middleton's popular and controversial Game at Chess. The concept of the 'paper stage' enables us to assess theatre's participation in a wider public sphere by extending the parameters of public performance to include scurrilous pamphlets, satires and libels. Playwrights put London on stage, allowing us to analyse the way social spaces (shops, taverns, prisons) are dramatised, from Dekker's Shoemaker's Holiday to Middleton's Chaste Maid in Cheapside, as well as conditions of playgoing in early modern London. By attending to the body of the actor in performance, in plays such as Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Jonson's Epicoene, we can engage with recent critical work in gender and performance studies.
This module will explore the range of new forms and genres that emerged in the Victorian period and which went on to shape the culture of the twentieth century. Making special use of unique library holdings, it will examine how changes in modes of cultural production and consumption underpinned these innovations and helped to influence the emergence of modernist modes of writing.
Tracing the development of new forms and genres, and examining the relevance of transformations in publishing and reading practice to the emerging preoccupation with the commodification of literature, and debates over high and low culture, the module touches on the formal concerns of major novelists who have been identified as early modernists. These topics will be read within the context of contemporary theoretical debates over fiction and developments in journalism and periodical publication. Authors and texts include Emile Zola, Thérèse Raquin, Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Henry James, The Aspern Papers, Rudyard Kipling The Light that Failed, Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island and The Ebb Tide.
Oscar Wilde's life and writings have been strongly present in a number of overlapping critical areas over recent decades: writing and sexual identity; irony and social critique; aesthetics and politics; post-colonialism and Ireland. This course embraces those debates, and also seeks to renew Wilde studies via other, under-explored critical frameworks. How does a play like The Importance of Being Earnest take the long tradition of the aphorism, derived from the Greeks, and alter its literary possibilities for modern drama? How might we re-read a novella such as The Picture of Dorian Gray with reference to present-day ideas of body dysmorphia? How do the economics of consumerism and publishing come together with decadent ideals in the "decorated book"? What is the relation between the visual and the textual in work by Wilde and his contemporaries? How is our sense of Wilde's prison writings - De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol - enriched by research into its contexts?
In answering these questions, the course makes extensive use of the exceptional resources (manuscripts, rare editions, ephemera) from the 1890s in the University's Special Collections, and of the manuscript, printed, and photographic resources of the Reading Gaol Archive, housed at the nearby Berkshire Record Office.
Social and Cultural Events
Our MA students are invited to all of our guest lectures and research seminars. In addition, every year we organise "cultural expeditions" specifically for our MA students. This year's expeditions include a visit to the "Oscar Wilde and Reading Gaol" exhibition, followed by tea at Reading's legendary pie-house, Sweeney and Todd's, and a visit to the Dickens Museum in London, followed by tea in a Soho noodle house.