Great Courses: Classics Of British Literature: Part 3, by Professor John Sutherland
By this point in a course, the third part of four, one ought to have some idea of what one is getting, and this is certainly the case here. The author shows his fondness for British literature of a kind that can be widely appreciated by students and which in some cases I am immensely fond of personally . And as is often the case with this course, the selections and, perhaps even more importantly, the justifications for those choices are a mixed bag. Some of these are inspired choices and some seem to have been made simply in order to celebrate drama. And as someone who doesn’t like to think of the importance of personal drama in the choice of great literature, as fond as I may be of drama in my own life and in my own reading, I find myself at odds with this instructor on a frequent basis. A huge part of that is our difference in approach–I happen to be a moralist, and that is the last thing this author wants to be or wants to celebrate. The result is that even when we like the same writers and the same works, we judge them by different standards.
In terms of its contents, this course is twelve lectures over six hours of instruction. The instructor begins with a look at Sir Walter Scott, who was first famed for his Scottish balladry but is now known mainly for his contributions to historical fiction. The instructor then turns to Wordsworth and Coleridge and their successful (if somewhat brief) collaboration as the author of lyrical ballads. A lecture on Lord Byron follows, where the author seems to revel in Byron’s immorality, and then the instructor talks about poetry again with a look at the beauty of Keats’ poetry and the sadness of his short and troubled life. A look at Frankenstein allows the author to praise the philosophy of Goodwin and Wollstonecraft, after which the instructor spends a lecture contrasting Jane Austen with Mrs. Radcliffe as novelist and then another lecture talking about Pride & Prejudice, not that I mind so much time being devoted to Jane Austen’s novels. After a lecture on Dickens, the author looks at the rise of realistic fiction in the writing of Thackeray and others. Two lectures on the Brontë sisters follow where first Wuthering Heights and then Jane Eyre are celebrated before the instructor finishes this part of the lecture by looking at a trio of Victorian poets like Alfred Lord Tennyson and Gerald Manly Hopkins whose writings bridge the period between the Victorian era and the modern era.
Again, if you like Victorian novels and 19th century poetry you will find much to appreciate here. For someone like me, this part is a mixed bag, as it contains a celebration of books I myself feel little connection to apart from my interest in the poetry of the early 19th century and the writings of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Those whose tastes are more into lengthy and sometimes tedious early to mid Victorian literature will find much more of pleasure than I am, as well as those who like gothic fiction, which I must admit I am not fond of. At times it feels as if the author is more interested in seeing the drama of a life and how it makes for “great” literature than he is interested in that great literature itself, and he appears particularly interested in the turns of fate that make some writing greater among future generations and make some well-regarded literature entirely obscure to those of later ages. Admittedly, these turns of fate are interesting to me, but for the most part I feel that unless an author lived a worthy life, that I would much rather know as little as possible about their personal lives, as that tends to mainly reduce my interest in what they did.
 See, for example: