Romantic Stories

Romantic Stories

Mai-Lin Cheng
Assistant Professor, Clark Honors College, University of Oregon

Course Description

Honors College 421: Romantic Stories

This course explores early nineteenth-century poetry and prose, primarily focusing on the literature of British Romanticism. We will consider how Romantic stories explore the relationship between gender and genre, poetry and history, theory and literature, self and other. Some of the questions we will ask include the following: what do Romantic stories represent, and why? And how do Romantic stories help us understand what’s at stake in representation? What stories do we tell about the Romantics?


This is a required course for upper-division students in the Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon, most of whom are non-majors; it satisfies one of their Arts and Letters upper-division requirements.  Because most of these students are not English majors, the course faces particular challenges. Students do not necessarily have a special interest in Romanticism or in literary studies. However, they are smart and motivated and respond to a professor's passion for the material. My challenge is not only to convey that passion but to persuade them to share it through the collective work of reading Romanticism. I want students to come away understanding how attending to the workings of representation in the course materials makes them better readers of Romanticism in particular and of literature, politics, and society in general. 

When I last taught this course, I began with Coleridge's poem "Christabel." I asked my students to debate how the poem might challenge our notions of representation. Silence. More silence. Finally, one student raised her hand and said, "it may just be me, but what happens in this poem? I don't get the story." When I asked others to pitch in and construct the poem's "story," there was more silence. We spent the rest of that class parsing individual passages, translating, if you will, the poem's poetry into a narrative the students could understand. I am grateful to the student who articulated her problem as one of understanding the "story." And, mindful of that initial difficulty, I have redesigned the course to focus on questions of story and representation.

Appendix 1: Course Project

The core project for this course is the production of a critical edition of a romantic text. My goal with this assignment is to have students engage the mechanisms of literary research and criticism to gain insight into the textual practices of Romanticism. I developed this assignment to change the way I teach Romanticism; with it, I'm teaching Romanticism as a critical method, a practice. For the critical edition, I ask them to create an artifact that includes a table of contents, a set of appendices containing primary and secondary documents on a topic of their own choice, and a critical essay that explains the rationale for the edition and develops an argument using evidence from the text and the appendices. The process of creating an edition like this is meant to communicate the nature of criticism as both analytic and creative. My hope is that as students make their own edition, they will experience the entanglement of criticism and creativity that was fundamental to the Romantics.

I designed this project to take advantage of the interdisciplinary interests and backgrounds of my students. And it is designed to be maximally flexible in terms of media: students may elect to create a print project, or to create their project using digital media and digital sources, whether it is digitized archives, innovative use of other digital resources, or a fully digital critical edition web site. In preparation for the assignment, students will survey a range of extant critical editions of Romantic texts to see how particular editions tell particular stories; the Broadview Critical editions, for example, tell a different story from the Norton Critical Edition; the Romantic Circle's Electronic Editions tell yet another.

Students will be encouraged to be eclectic and creative in their approach, and to allow their own disciplinary interests to guide their approach. How might they include contemporary stories about (or as) Romanticism in their critical edition? Do my pre-med students want to explore Romantic science? Do my fans of modern popular culture want to explore the role of fandom, then, and now? I imagine that the project, while structured, will allow a wide range of possible responses. My hope is that one or two of most successful editions might be showcased on Romantic Circles.

As students create their own critical edition of a Romantic text, I will emphasize to them: through the selection of materials, you are making an argument about what things matter to our understanding of the core text and creating an edition that is uniquely your own. The text they choose may be one included in the syllabus, or they may work with another text by an author of their choice. The critical edition must be original in concept, composition, and organization.

Appendix 2: Schedule of Readings

The readings move between poetry and prose, lyric and narrative, literature and film. We will consult with our special collections librarians over the course of the term to make some adjustments based on the library's holdings. Reading is lighter in the last four weeks of the quarter, to allow time for research and writing.

  • Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (Norton Critical Edition)
  • Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (Harvest/Harcourt)
  • Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (Broadview Edition)
  • selections from John Keats, Keats’s Poetry and Prose (Norton Critical Edition)
  • selections from Lyrical Ballads (Cengage)


Themes & Topics

Week (W.)

Session (S.)

Schedule of Readings

Why Romantic Stories?

W. 1


Introduction: Book Display of Critical Editions of Romantic Era Texts, print and online, including Romantic Circles Electronic Edition of Frankenstein

keywords for “Romantic Stories”;

re-presentation & Romanticism



John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

browse other odes, letters


W. J. T. Mitchell, “Representation”

Raymond Williams, “Introduction” to Keywords

Raymond Williams, “Representative,” “Romantic”

stories of strange characters; Romantic stories and the ballad

W. 2


S. T. Coleridge, “Christabel”


Browse Percy, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (on reserve at Knight)

Susan Stewart, “Scandals of the Ballad” from Crimes of Writing

Romantic sexualities;

representing the Gothic & supernatural; stories of doubles



“Christabel,” continued


recommended background reading:

Raymond Williams, “The Romantic Artist”

Burton, selections from Anatomy of Melancholy


W. 3


Tour Special Collections; Nineteenth-Century Editions; book history mini-lecture from Rare Books Librarian

hybrid stories; literature & pedagogy




William Wordsworth, “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, Lyrical Ballads, focus on “The Thorn”; selections from Dorothy Wordsworth’s poems and journals


David Lloyd and Paul Thomas, from Culture and the State, focus on the discussion of Lyrical Ballads

the “problem" of the woman writer; gender & genre

W. 4


Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey


George Eliot, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”

Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

literature & parody; stories in/and the novel



Northanger Abbey, continued


“Contexts” section of our edition of Northanger Abbey, focus on Radcliffe

Austen and the cult of the author

W. 5


wrap-up Northanger Abbey

Johnson, “Austen Cults and Cultures”




Three-Minute Presentations: Critical Edition Proposal

the (Romantic)

novel “after” Romanticism; the (romantic)

novel & difference

W. 6


Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

Charlotte Brontë’s,“Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell”; Charlotte Brontë, “Editor’s Preface to the New Edition of Wuthering Heights” (Norton 307-16)




Wuthering Heights, continued

Representing Romantic Stories on Film: Wuthering Heights

W. 7


Wuthering Heights, continued; clips from Wuthering Heights (1939)




Three-Minute Presentations: Critical Edition Finds

Lyric stories; representing poetic identities

W. 8


Student-Selected Texts




Student-Selected Texts

Representing Romantic Stories on Film: Keats

W. 9


Bright Star 




Bright Star 

"Dead Week"; no new reading

W. 10


Critical Edition Workshop




Critical Edition Workshop

Finals Week



Critical Edition Due; Exhibition of Critical Editions at Time of Final