(LITR013) Empire of the Imagination: Victorian Popular Fiction and the Occult

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Start date: to be confirmed.

Tutor(s): Dr Tamsin Kilner
Course Code: LITR013
Level: Non-accredited, non-credit bearing
Assessments/Exams: None. Throughout the course you will be given ideas and questions to respond to in the online discussion area. Participation in online discussion is encouraged, but not compulsory.
Duration: 12 weeks
Estimated Student Study Time: 4 – 6 hours per week, including reading, are recommended, but time spent is flexible and at your discretion.
Fee: £150.00
Pre-Requisites: None. No academic qualifications or experience of studying English literature are required, only a strong enthusiasm for the subject.
Delivery: Online Distance Learning
Late Entrants: If this course is not full by the start date then late entrants will be accepted for up to two weeks after the start of the course. As a late entrant you can choose to catch up on the material you have missed or you can skip the missed weeks and concentrate on the material at the point where you join the course, but unfortunately we cannot offer fee reductions or course extensions for late entrants.
Recommended Reading**:
Many of the texts needed for this course are available online through Project Gutenberg. More arcane material will be provided within the learning environment.

Required Reading**:

**Please note: All courses are subject to sufficient numbers of students registering before they are confirmed as running. Therefore, after booking your place you are advised not to purchase any texts until you have received confirmation that the course is running.

This course was previously taught by Dr Tamsin Kilner when it was offered by the University of Exeter*. If you studied it with the University of Exeter* you might not wish to study it again with Learn for Pleasure as although we have revised and updated our courses where necessary, it will likely be substantively the same.


This course explores the ways in which occult activities and ideas prevalent during the late-Victorian period inspired and informed contemporary popular fiction.

Direct involvement with occultism was not necessary in order to feel the influence of its preoccupations: magic and supernatural interests at this time were so popular as to pervade the public imagination without requiring a personal engagement with either. In addition, we will examine the shifting relationship between science, religion and the occult, and the ways in which the politics of power, gender and race affected both occult practices amongst the initiated, and fictional representations of magic.

In the first weeks of the course, we will explore occultism in various distinct yet overlapping areas, drawing attention to the difficulties encountered in addressing so nebulous an area from an academic perspective. Issues of secrecy and of the subjectivity of interpretation will be considered in conjunction with detailed accounts of practitioners of the occult.

Following this, we will work through a range of contemporary popular fiction, considering each author’s interest in the occult in light of the recurrent themes and ideas identified in the opening weeks of the course, and positioning it as part of a wider cultural awareness of the occult which was not predicated on active participation in esoteric groups or movements.

Syllabus Plan

Week 01: Introduction: Magic in the Academic World
Week 02: The Golden Dawn: Secrets and Lies
Week 03: Theosophy: Performing Magic in the Nineteenth Century
Week 04: Spiritualism: Smoke and Mirrors
Week 05: H. Rider Haggard
Week 06: Marie Corelli
Week 07: M. R. James
Week 08: Kipling
Week 09: Arthur Conan Doyle
Week 10: Fact or Fiction? The Society for Psychical Research
Week 11: W. Somerset Maugham, The Magician
Week 12: Drawing the Veil: From Neophyte to Adept

Learning Outcomes

This course will help students to acquire:

  • An understanding of the difficulties presented by the occult in terms of academic study.
  • An understanding of the interplay between science, religion and the occult in the nineteenth century.
  • An awareness of the ways in which contextual information can deepen understanding of a literary text.
  • Experience of undertaking close, critical readings of contemporary texts both literary and factual.
  • Experience of the academic discussion.