Meet the Team: Sophie Oxenham, Head of Culture & Humanities

Patricia Sweeney
Published: 14 December 2023
Image of a bookshelf

Sophie Oxenham, tutor and Head of Culture and Humanities, tells Literature Programme Coordinator Patricia Sweeney about her passion for teaching nineteenth century novels, and what students might read if they are interested in discovering more.

Portrait image of Sophie OxenhamPortrait image of Sophie Oxenham
Sophie Oxenham, Head of Culture & Humanities

What courses on nineteenth century novels do you teach at City Lit?

I teach courses across a range of periods, genres and authors; I'm particularly delighted to be teaching courses on Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and George Eliot this year. Our Literature programme is also running courses on 'borderlines of madness' in the nineteenth century novel, and on fin-de-siècle (end of century) writers, amongst others. We refresh the programme every year so 'watch this space' for new courses.

What do you enjoy most about teaching nineteenth century novels at City Lit?

It genuinely feels such a privilege to share my enthusiasm for these novels with engaged adult learners who come from all backgrounds and levels of experience. Our discussions are wide-ranging, enriching, friendly and fun - I always come away from a class feeling energised, and often having discovered fresh perspectives from the group. I love it!

Can you give us examples of some of the novels that you study on some of your courses?

Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey' is more than just a satire on eighteenth century gothic novels, it wittily engages with novel-writing and fictionality itself, exposing the ways in which we read and mis-read both ourselves and others. Austen's later 'Persuasion' shows her moving towards a more subtle representation of the inner life, through her innovative use of narrative voice. Bronte's 'Jane Eyre' allows us to explore developing Victorian ideas about childhood, the impact of medical and other discourses upon the female Self, and post-colonial critiques of Bertha, 'the madwoman in the attic', amongst other things. The depth and humanity of George Eliot's 'Middlemarch' is always a highlight - many students say they find it helpful to study a longer novel like this over a few weeks, discussing it with others.

What would you say to anyone who's wondering, are nineteenth century novels for me?

Nineteenth century novels - like all novels - are for everyone! The century saw enormous changes – political, social, scientific, religious -and this is reflected in a rich variety of novels that are innovative, multi-faceted and which remain relevant to us today. Don't be daunted if it sometimes takes you a few chapters to settle into a novel - stick with it and once you get involved you won't be able to put it down! Chances are that you'll find characters and sentences that stay with you all your life.

What do you think of the many screen adaptations of famous nineteenth century novels (such as Pride and Prejudice, for example)?

Ah, the iconic Darcy moment! Many adaptations are fascinating in their own right, and they can also be a useful gateway to the novels; however, students are often surprised to find there is so much more going on in the books themselves. We often compare different adaptations through discussion of short film clips. We also consider the impact of the heritage industry on our perceptions of these writers - that can usefully challenge some of our assumptions.

What favourite or lesser-known novel from the period do you think is underrated and deserves more recognition? What makes them special?

'Villette' by Charlotte Bronte is one of my favourite novels and is less well known than 'Jane Eyre' or Emily Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights'. Its heroine, Lucy Snowe, has a fascinatingly evasive narrative approach, that builds into a powerful psychological portrait of isolation and repression; it eventually leads to one of the best novel endings of the period (I'll say no more!).

Can you share a memorable experience from your childhood about reading?

Next to my (very fierce) childhood dentist there was a junk shop that had some scruffy old books on its shelves. When I was about ten I spent all my pocket money on an enormous, ancient-looking leather bound book, just because I liked the age, smell, and look of it. It turned out to be an old Bible from 1613. I must have been an odd ten year old!

What author (or authors) from the past would you invite to dinner, and why?

Aside from Shakespeare, it would be fascinating to meet the seventeenth century poet John Donne, for his incredible wit and humanity. I'm not entirely sure I'd always like him though... Another poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was famed for his stimulating and mercurial conversation - but equally famously no one could ever get a word in edge-ways, so we'd need to be happy to listen. After a while I might sneak off into another room to chat with Virginia Woolf and leave the poets to themselves…

What tips do you have for anyone who wants to read more novels from the period but is not sure where to start?

Earlier in the century, Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ is a fascinating read; the questions it raises about over-reaching human power and ‘science’ (or ‘technology’) still resonate with us today. If you've enjoyed screen adaptations of Austen, Bronte, or Dickens, you might like to start with ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Persuasion’, ‘Jane Eyre’, or ‘Great Expectations’. Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘North and South’, a ‘condition of England’ novel, engages powerfully with the social hardships of the industrial North. Wilkie Collins arguably wrote the first detective story (‘The Moonstone’); his novel ‘The Woman in White’ is an entertaining read that also explores subversive gender identities. At the end of the century, ideas of modernity, and the ‘return of the repressed’ are explored in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. If you’ve always wanted to read longer works such as George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ - seen by some as the greatest nineteenth century novel -  but are perhaps feeling a little daunted, you may well enjoy studying it in a friendly and supportive group with us here at City Lit. We’d love to welcome you to our reading community.

Explore our fiction programme, including nineteenth century novels

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Meet the Team: Sophie Oxenham, Head of Culture & Humanities