When I applied for an English Literature degree at the University of Birmingham, my motivation was to continue learning about and enjoying the novels and plays that had me captivated during my AS and A2 level courses. I thought that Shakespeare, Dickens and the occasional Bronte or Austen novel would pop up on the syllabus, and I would leave university with a full knowledge of classic and canonical texts. After completing my degree a month ago, looking back it is funny to see how wrong I was. Indeed, Shakespeare and Dickens act as the foundation to many courses I studied, such as fifteenth and sixteenth century theatre and performance, or an amusingly titled course – ‘Victoria’s Secrets’ – exploring secrecy, the domestic sphere and crime in Victorian London, but what I gained the most from the course was an understanding of less well known texts. These texts allow you to compare the way writers deal with social and cultural issues at the time. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an iconic and culturally significant work, but Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, a text published decades before Dracula, dealing with similar themes and issues but from a female perspective, did not receive the same recognition as Stoker’s Dracula. Analyzing why this occurs, and examining social factors, such as gender, class, race and religion, allows you to understand the reasons for the success or failure of a text, and places a collection of texts, such as the gothic novel, within a wider discussion about the changes in society during the Victorian period and the rise of aestheticism and modern literature.
By reading around a topic, and exploring not just the well known works, but the more niche and unusual novels and plays, allows you to understand a literary movement or trope and compare texts within this group. The most valuable advice I received before my degree was to constantly question why things happen in literature, and to examine the reasons behind a literary publication. Following on from this, here are my five tips to prepare yourself for an English literature degree; either at the University of Birmingham or anywhere else you decide to apply. These are points I tried to follow in my three years of undergraduate study, and will guarantee confidence in your ability to succeed, as well as help you to get the most out of your course.
1. As mentioned before, always ask why. Why does Iago hate Othello? Why is Emma always looking to find matches for her friends and family? Why does Oscar Wilde use a painting to reflect Dorian Gray’s malevolence? By questioning the reasons for certain occurrences in literature, you can explore in detail both an author’s justification for writing a text, as well as the way in which an issue or theme is presented.
2. You have to love, or at least mildly tolerate, reading. Reading takes up 65% of your time at university when studying for an English Literature degree, and requires patience and a keen eye for specific phrases or repeated themes that may come up in seminar discussions. By reading a play or novel before a class that week, you will be prepared for any analysis of a specific passage or chapter, and will feel confident to speak in class, which can often impact overall grades when participation counts towards a module mark.
3. You have to check and keep up with reading lists. Your course convener has compiled them for your benefit, and any text included will enhance your understanding of a certain work. Cambridge Companion Guides are useful to have at hand if you study a course dealing with a specific time period or genre, as there will be material to assist in your understanding of that genre, be it historical, cultural or literary.
4. You have to be self-motivated and capable of independent thought. Lectures act as the springboard for your own ideas and views of a text, and ultimately you decide what a novel is saying about a specific issue. One student might argue that Ian McEwan’s Atonement is centered on themes of justice and retribution, whilst another student may view it as a study of childhood, adolescence and the process of maturity. In English, there is no right or wrong answer, just as long as you support your argument or view with textual proof and detailed analysis and explanation.
5. You have to be clear. English Literature is a degree that focuses on how well you can construct an argument. A typical essay title at undergraduate level will ask you to discuss and explore a specific topic or issue, rather than describe it. Always refer to the title question, and always make sure that any point you make links back to your argument. For example, an essay might ask you to discuss how and why disguise and costume are utilized in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Rather than simply state when disguise is present within the play, you must ensure you explain why this occurs, and any effect this produces.
I hope that these five points have explained what you need to succeed within your chosen literature course, and above all will allow you to enjoy and excel in these three years. Good luck!