Victorian Novel Research Seminar 2016, Swarthmore College

Replacing “How something is made, with a view to finding out what it is” with “How something is made, with a view to making it again...” Roland Barthes, The Preparation of the Novel, Session of December 9, 1978, 13.

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This research-intensive honors seminar considered the Victorian novel as both a genre and a material object. Two questions animated the seminar: How are Victorian novels made? and How is scholarship about Victorian novels made? We explored the possibilities for rethinking canonical twentieth-century theories representational theories of novelistic realism, asking how Victorian novels might be said to refer to the real worlds their authors and readers inhabited. In response, we turned to the set of practices and processes through which Victorian novelists gathered the things of the world into their novels: research. Reading several major and minor Victorian novels, we traced the ways novelists searched sets of documents, took notes, and organized information to perform research of all kinds in the library and on the streets. Full description and syllabus.

We were lucky to have Paul Fyfe (North Carolina State) as our Honors Program external examinar and Anna Gibson visit via screen to talk with us about her Dickens Working Notes Project.


Corey Branch, Gaby Ekens, Luke Eppley, Anna Gonzales, Adriana Obiols Roca, Lanie Schlessinger, Yumi Shiroma, Nithya Swaminathan, RJ Tischler

Discussion Outlines

Pairs of seminar members created extensive weekly discussion outlines each week in collaboration with Rachel. They include excerpts from each week’s student-written seminar papers, criticism summaries, close readings, and links to past outlines. Created primarily for the use of the seminar, they are also our primary public record of our work; seminar writing is by default not published online (though individual students are free of course to do so themselves).

The Barsetshire Project

Critics have debated and discussed the status of Trollope's Barsetshire series. Clearly The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, The Small House at Allington, Framley Parsonage, and The Last Chronicle of Barset only slowly and retrospectively came to seem - to both Trollope and to his readers - like a coherent series. But critics have been limited by our ability to conceptualize and model the interrelations between the six novels. Drawing on the 2015 seminar's work on Trollope's Barsetshire series, including a corpus of the novels they prepared, some work with named entity extraction and topic modeling, and their brainstorming about possible useful models, the 2016 seminar collaborated with PJ Trainor (in tandem with his independent study in Literary Data Visualization and his role as Department of English Literature Digital Fellow) and Nabil Kashyap (McCabe’s Librarian for Digital Initiatives and Scholarship) to iteratively develop one way of visualizing the series.

PJ's current draft of a visualization of themes across the Barsetshire Chronicles uses one bar to represent each chapter in each novel in the series. Drawing on a list of the 500 most frequently occurring words in each novel and across the corpus of six novels, the seminar came up with a series of wordlists corresponding with themes they had identified from their reading as developing across the novels. PJ then calculated the proportions of each "theme," or concentration of related words, in each chapter and represented their presence as shades: darker = more words related to a given theme in a chapter, lighter = less.

Visually suggesting books on a shelf, the visualization works to draw attention towards the unit of the chapter; scroll over an individual chapter-bar and two pieces of data display: chapter title and the percentage of the "topic" in that chapter. By emphasizing the chapter and deemphasizing the distance between the separate novels, the visualization prompts us to consider what a theory of the Barsetshire series's uneven connections might look like.

The visualization infrastructure and texts can be reused by future seminars, who might experiment with other human-created wordlist "topics" or with topic modeling. Other approaches to visualizations that might help us study continuities and discontinuities across the Barsetshire series discussed by the seminar but not pursued included character networks and geographic mapping combining Trollope's own maps with location identifications drawn from the text of the six novels; you can read a bit more about some of these possibilities and learn more about PJ's work process in his production post.

Previous seminars

2015 Victorian Novel Research Seminar syllabus and discussion outlines.

2013 Victorian Novel Research Seminar course archive.

VNRS alumni network

If you are a Swarthmore Victorian Seminar alum and want to be added to our listserv, email me.

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