How to Solve Problems with Books: Advice from the Victorians

by Abigail Droge
Published January 28, 2019

How would the Victorians advise us if they could see the effects of industrialism today? The next assignment in “How to Solve Problems with Books” asks students to grapple with this question by inhabiting the perspectives of nineteenth-century figures (both historical authors and fictional characters). The assignment is the second in a sequence of three, all of which are meant, collectively, to enact a dialogue between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries.

In the first assignment, teams of students prepared a Research Memo and Annotated Bibliography, with each team oriented around a different current issue related to industrialism. Topics included reducing carbon emissions, building affordable housing, rethinking the future of work, and reforming education. In “Advice from the Victorians,” students remain in their teams, but this time they must go deeper on their chosen issues by imagining how a Victorian Board of Advisors would respond, were they to read the Research Memos that students have just produced. The assignment thus combines creative writing and literary analysis in what is, I hope, a fun way of bringing the Victorians to life.

Thus far, we have read pieces by Thomas Carlyle, William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Morris, John Ruskin, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels, and we have just begun a tandem reading of two industrial novels, Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855). Students thus have many examples of nineteenth-century voices from which to choose. I share the assignment sheet below.


Advice from the Victorians

Assignment: This assignment follows directly from the Research Memo and Annotated Bibliography that you have just completed. In your first assignment, you wrote a briefing on an important current issue related to industrialism and its effects in the twenty-first century, working with the premise that your audience was an Advisory Board made up of Victorians. In this second assignment, you get to imagine what those Victorians might say in response to the issues you have described to them. The assignment consists of two parts, the first of which should be an “impersonation” of one of our nineteenth-century authors or characters, and the second of which should describe the strategies you used to speak in the voice of this figure. Once again, the goal is to spark a dialogue between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries.

1) Impersonation (500 words minimum, per person):

  • First, each team member must choose to impersonate a different author or character from our readings. In this voice, you will give advice about your team’s central issue. For instance, you could write from the perspective of a real historical figure, like Charles Dickens, Karl Marx, or William Morris, or from the point of view of a fictional character, like Louisa Gradgrind, Sissy Jupe, or Margaret Hale. You can also interpret “character” creatively and choose to embody a place, like Coketown or Milton-Northern.
  • When your team’s impersonations are aggregated, they will form a series of responses to your initial Research Memo, told from a variety of perspectives, and the collection of people you have picked will be your Board of Advisors. It’s therefore important that each team member chooses to represent a different nineteenth-century figure. Though you can turn in your assignments individually this time, make sure that you are still in contact with the rest of your team about your plans.
  • Feel free to make direct reference to your first assignment. You are essentially imagining what Victorians would say if they came face-to-face with the impact of industrialism now. What solutions might they propose to the questions you investigated in your Research Memo? Which actions would they support and which would they dislike? What might they think if they were to read the sources in your Annotated Bibliography?
  • Remember that helpful resources (such as biographical information about our nineteenth-century authors) are available through our Library Research Guide.

2) Reflection (500 words minimum, per person):

  • Second, each team member should reflect on why you made the decisions that you did when impersonating the author or character you chose. What passages in our readings guided your tone and word choice? What convinced you that this person would respond in this way? You might think about particular experiences that this author or character had (either in real life or in the course of a novel) that could inform his or her perspective. Be sure to reference specific moments in the text and to include citations.


The goal of this assignment is to give the Victorians a seat at the table when discussing issues of great impact for our current moment. In the spirit of humanities advocacy that motivates the WhatEvery1Says project, part of the inspiration here is that advocacy relies upon animation: students must be able to imagine living, breathing Victorians as figures from whom they could learn, with whom they could engage, and whose perspectives still hold a vital relevance to the lives of Millennials. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, it is also one of the liveliest pedagogical tools, in that it simultaneously reincarnates previous voices and helps students to craft their own voices as well.

This is certainly not to say that such advice from the Victorians should be followed wholesale; in fact, the third assignment in this sequence will ask students to evaluate the advice they have just imaginatively represented and to decide, from their own viewpoints, whether or not to take it. Nevertheless, it is a crucial premise of this class that understanding and invoking historical perspectives in tandem with one’s own ideas will always make those ideas stronger, even if by situating them in contrast to a road not taken. Since the Victorians were among the first generations to see the impact of mass industrialization up close, their voices may well be worth a listen.


This post is part of a series about the ongoing UC Santa Barbara English course “Uses of Literature: How to Solve Problems with Books.” For context, read more about the motivations and design process behind the course. 

The goal of the Curriculum Lab is to ensure a steady dialogue between research and teaching for the WhatEvery1Says project. For more information, see our webpage and this introductory blog post, and stay tuned for more Curriculum Lab posts throughout the year!