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English 499: Historicizing Sexuality

Any explanation of this course should first address the creative typographical error by which it is misnamed in the course timetable for the Spring of 2000.  The course, actually called “Historicizing Sexuality,” is listed as “Historicizing Sexually,” a title which sounds intriguing but which is nonetheless wrong.  What happened grammatically is that the reader of the original title and the problematic term “sexuality” turned a noun (sexuality as a thing, an object of study) into an adverb (sexually as a way of doing something, a modifier for a verb which is transformed by its relationship to the sexual).  The slip illustrates just how hard it is to talk about sexuality; are we in the land of nouns or verbs? Stable objects of study or changing ones? The truth of who we are or just another way of “performing” ourselves in the world?  And all of these questions don’t begin to help you explain to your family why you are taking this course.  The fact is that many of us get at little lost when we talk about sexuality because we tend to experience it as an intimate and fundamentally true thing about ourselves, even if we can acknowledge that what we find true about ourselves may not be true for other people.

This course looks back in British history and culture to try to begin to think about the formation of the ideas about sexuality and gender that lay the groundwork for the modern individual, which are deeply intertwined with concepts of class, nation, ethnicity, and age though historically organized readings in British literature.  The first section of the course places writers such as Lord Rochester, Aphra Behn, and William Wycherly in the context of the political debates of the Restoration and the efforts to “reform” sexual behavior that come from medical and religious discourses.  The second section of the course takes up friendship and its sometimes sexual charge through works by Jane Barker, Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, Charlotte Charke, Daniel Defoe, and others.  The last section focuses on the gothic as a repository of psycho-sexual anxieties that inform both the history of the novel and the history of sexuality through works from Horace Walpole, William Beckford, and Jane Austen.

In addition to Foucault, we will also read selections from twentieth-century critics Halperin, McKeon, Armstrong, Castle, Salvaggio, and others.  The orientation of the course is both historical and theoretical, in an attempt to encourage you to think through the historical origins of categories of identity and the conceptual force they continue to wield as we move into the 21st century.


The course requires you to write three short papers and one more substantial paper at the end of the semester.  There will be no midterm, but there will be a short final.  In addition to these written assignments, you will also receive a class participation grade, which will be influenced by your work as a discussion leader for an appointed class session and by your general participation.  Obviously, if you are not here, you cannot participate. After three absences, your grade will be lowered.  Please make this discussion-driven class a priority in your schedule, for our mutual edification.

Short papers:    25%
Class Participation:   25%
Long paper:  25%
Final:   25%

Book List

  • DeMaria, British Literature, 1640-1789
  • Wycherley, The Country Wife
  • Behn, Oroonoko, The Rover, and Other Works
  • Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1
  • Centlivre, A Bold Stroke for a Wife
  • Cleland, Fanny Hill, or The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure
  • Lindsay, ed., The Beggar’s Opera and Other Eighteenth-Century Plays
  • Austen, Northanger Abbey


I will add to these suggestions over the semester, but for starters, here are some sites that have served me well:

  • Eighteenth-Century Resources, maintained by Jack Lynch, is the best of the best. Its search engine allows you to find things quickly. It also has a nice array of e-texts indexed with the general sites.
  • Eighteenth-Century Studies is a close second to Jack Lynch’s archive and is easier to use if you are browsing.
  • A Celebration of Women Writers connects you to e-text and to biographical materials for hundreds of women writers in the eighteenth-century.