Mary Shelley composed her famous novel Frankenstein (1818) amid a whirlwind of personal turmoil, important friendships, and significant travel. This course will retrace the path of her journeys from childhood to Frankenstein, visiting sites associated with her and her circle—including John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron—in London, Geneva, Venice, Florence, and Rome as we investigate the relationships between an author's historical and imaginative realities.
As a longtime reader of the Romantic poets, a writer with a Ph.D. in British Romanticism, and someone who's become more and more fascinated as I get older by how travel can challenge and change the self, I was really excited by the opportunity to help students experience all these things in person.
I’ve designed this course to help students grow intellectually, imaginatively, and emotionally in their understanding of how artists (in general and in the specific cases of the second-generation Romantics) interact with their times and places to produce enduring works of art. I also wanted them to join the “great conversation” of art, history, and culture across place and time, develop enriched perspectives to bring to it themselves, and stay engaged in that conversation for life. I also wanted them to become resilient, savvy travelers who respect other cultures and take responsibility for acting safely and appropriately in a variety of situations.
It was important to teach this course abroad because the words and the stories of authors strike me and the students with a deep immediacy and freshness when we actually stand where they stood, walk where they walked, linger in the doorway of the rooms where they fell asleep.
It seems there are always great serendipities on a trip like this that delight you, if you’re open to them and are paying attention. This year I took students to the famous Venice opera house La Fenice for the first time. We were thrilled to learn that a rehearsal of Verdi's opera Stiffelio was in progress at the same time, and we were allowed to watch as long as we wanted—sitting in the ornate gilded boxes where Byron might have sat to flirt, gossip, and spy on his fellow opera goers.
I chose to enroll in this course mainly due to my fascination with the Romantic Era of British literature. Writers like Leigh Hunt and Mary Shelley and poets such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Lord Byron have captivated my interest ever since I first read their work in high school. But beyond my academic interests, I have long desired for the opportunity to travel throughout Europe and explore the varied and colorful cultures that exist only a short train ride away from one another. This course definitely satisfied this thirst for adventure, this wanderlust.
The entire trip was one giant highlight for me, but three memories immediately come to mind. One was the French Alps, where we ventured into France for a day during our stay in Geneva, Switzerland, and found ourselves in the ski resort town Chamonix, where we experienced stunning views, high thrills, and the great crepes of Mont Blanc and the rest of the French Alps. The next major highlight was when we spent the afternoon in the Baths of Caracalla, the community bathhouse of ancient Rome. While we couldn’t bathe, the beautiful stone walls that surrounded the baths and the nearby lawn, home to towering Roman pines and other vegetation, revitalized my creativity and passion for art in community. The final highlight was Florence—or “Firenze,” as the Italians refer to the city. It was unlike any other city I’ve visited. Just being within the city limits was an experience in itself.
As a class we found it challenging at times to be thrown into five drastically different cultures (yes, the Italian cities are all that different) in three short weeks. Even though it was sometimes difficult to travel and live under this discomfort, we grew because of it. We learned about ourselves as students, studying in a foreign setting. We experienced ourselves as world travelers, understanding the potential risks that this level of exploration made possible. Most importantly, we viewed ourselves as young adults, finding our way in a world that is fascinatingly dangerous but also welcoming with open arms.