Undisciplining Victorian Autobiography

Printed color map of Jamaica with red arrow pointing to Kingston.

Lesson Plan Production Details

Developer: Heidi Kaufman Contact

Collaborating Peer Reviewers: Kira Braham, Indu Ohri, Breanna Simpson

Lesson Plan Cluster Developer: Adrian S. Wisnicki Contact

Cluster Title: Mary Seacole and the Caribbean

Publication Date: 2021

Note: This page uses the Chicago Author-Date citation format for all textual references. All references also appear in the project bibliography using the MLA citation format.

Learning Outcomes

This lesson plan situates Mary Seacole’s Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole within the context of Victorian and postcolonial autobiographical writing. The selection of texts foregrounds two complicating features of Seacole’s work: her identity as a woman and as an Afro-Caribbean writer. The lesson plan’s selection of primary materials situate life writing and fictional autobiographies by Afro-Caribbean and British writers within a global arena. Secondary materials draw connections and points of comparison among primary materials, questioning the power and utility of autobiographical writing as a medium of engagement in debates about gender, slavery, freedom, colonialism, and British global power. Students working with this lesson plan will have opportunities to consider the legacy of Victorian autobiographical writing alongside contemporary responses by Caribbean authors. Materials in this lesson plan also consider historical and contemporary writing that emerges “in the wake,” to borrow Sharpe’s language, of colonialism, slavery, and forms of rebellion and resistance. Several clusters of items could be used as stand-alone materials or in conjunction with course materials not included in this lesson plan.

Pathways (with Corresponding Texts)

Race and Gender in Victorian Life Writing

Recommended Texts (full references below): A Tread-Mill Scene in Jamaica 1837; Dominique (1808) 2008; Brereton 1998; Brontë (1847) 2019; Martineau (1844) 2003; Nightingale (1852) 1979; Pennington 2018; Prince (1831) 2000

Summary: How might we approach Seacole’s constructions of Creole femininity? How does her text endorse, strategically deploy, or outright resist normative Victorian gender roles? How does her self-identification as a Creole Jamaican with “good Scotch blood” rework normative Victorian racial codes? Does Seacole leverage Victorian gender constructions, particularly her emphasis on her mother-like qualities, to her (dis)advantage? Students focusing on gender and race might consider the relations of these constructions in Seacole’s narrative and those from her contemporary autobiographical counterpart, Florence Nightingale. Alternately, students might consider Seacole in light of nineteenth-century autobiographical forms, such as the Creole Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre: An Autobiography (1847) or Mary Prince’s A History of Mary Prince (1831).

Caribbean Autobiographical Writing

Recommended Texts (full references below): Barringer and Modest 2018; Brereton 1998; Brodber 2014; Dominique (1808) 2008; James 2009; Levy 2010; McCaulay 2012; Paquet 2002; Prince (1831) 2000; Rhys 1966; Sharpe 2016; Williams (1837) 2001

Summary: Many scholars have noted that Seacole downplays her Jamaican identity in Wonderful Adventures. How then might we read the work of Seacole’s autobiographical lens in the creation of her identity as a Jamaican Creole and British woman? Does her text move us beyond British (Anglo-centric) ways of knowing? How does her autobiographical voice and self-construction recast Victorian identity and/or Victorian autobiographical writing? This pathway invites students to consider Seacole’s use of autobiographical conventions to invent her identity as a Creole professional and a respectable Victorian woman.

In The Wake: Victorian-Caribbean-Autobiography

Recommended Texts (full references below): Barringer and Modest 2018; Brereton 1998; Brodber 2014; Brontë (1847) 2019; Dominique (1808) 2008; James 2009; Levy 2010; McCaulay 2012; Paquet 2002; Pennington 2018; Pinto 2019; Rhys 1966; Salih 2005; Sharpe 2016

Summary: Materials in this section invite consideration of Victorian autobiographical exchange by women writers in England and the Caribbean. The selection of texts respond to historiographies of nineteenth-century colonial culture and extant materials documenting the lives of enslaved peoples. In some cases, contemporary Caribbean writers on this list respond directly to Victorian texts, such as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. In other cases, however, contemporary Caribbean writers wrestle with gaps, silences, and foreclosed perspectives in literary history. In the later case, these writers use what audiences may think they know about nineteenth-century culture as a springboard for illuminating the necessity and limits of recovery work. The selection of texts prompts consideration of whether or how contemporary Caribbean writers are producing Neo-Victorian narratives.

Related Contemporary Topics

  • Victorian constructions of race and gender
  • Autobiography, race, and gender
  • Caribbean literature
  • Victorian Jamaica
  • Victorian/neo-Victorian (fictional) autobiography
  • Self-determination, self-representation
  • Freedom/autonomy
  • Rebellion/resistance

Suggested Materials

Nineteenth-/Early Twentieth-Century Materials

Brontë, Charlotte. (1847) 2019. Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Lewis, Matthew. (1834) 1999. Journal of a West India Proprietor. Edited by Judith Terry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nightingale, Florence. (1852) 1979. Cassandra. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York.

Prince, Mary. (1831) 2000. The History of Mary Prince. Edited by Sarah Salih. New York: Penguin.

Williams, James. (1837) 2001. A Narrative of Events, Since the First of August, 1834. Edited by Diana Paton. Durham: Duke University Press.

Neo-Victorian/Postcolonial Literary and Cultural Works

Brodber, Erna. 2014. Nothing’s Mat. Kingston: University of West Indies.

James, Marlon. 2009. The Book of Night Women. New York: Riverhead.

Levy, Andrea. 2010. The Long Song. New York: Picador.

McCaulay, Diana. 2012. Huracan. Leeds, UK: Peepal Tree Press.

Rhys, Jean. 1966. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: Norton.

Historical/Cultural Contexts

A Tread-Mill Scene in Jamaica. 1837. Illustration. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Dalziel, Thomas Bolton Gilchrist Septimus. 1866. The Black Question. Engraving. The Victorian Web

Dominique, Lyndon J., ed. (1808) 2008. The Woman of Colour: A Tale. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

Martineau, Harriet. (1844) 2003. Life in the Sick-Room. Edited by Maria Frawley. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

Mill, John Stuart. (1873) 1989. Autobiography. Edited by John M. Robson. New York: Penguin.

Solomon, Rebecca. 1861. The Young Teacher. Oil Painting. Wikipedia.

Tenniel, John. 1865. The Jamaica Question. Engraving. Punch [website]. 23 Dec. 1865


Barringer, Tim, and Wayne Modest, eds. 2018. Victorian Jamaica. Durham: Duke University Press.

Brereton, Bridget. 1998. “Gendered Testimonies: Autobiographies, Diaries and Letters by Women as Sources for Caribbean History.” Feminist Review 59 (Summer): 143–63.

Paquet, Sandra Pouchet. 2002. Caribbean Autobiography: Cultural Identity and  Self-Representation. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Pennington, Heidi. 2018. Creating Identity in the Victorian Fictional Autobiography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press.

Pinto, Samantha. 2019. “‘The Right Woman in the Right Place’: Mary  Seacole and Corrective Histories of Empire.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 50 (2-3): 1–31.

Salih, Sarah. 2005. “Introduction.” In Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, xv–lii. New York: Penguin.

Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke University Press.

Further Reading

Aljoe, Nicole N., and Elizabeth Maddock Dillon. Early Caribbean Digital Archive (ECDA). Northeastern University NULab: for Texts, Maps, and Networks, 2021.

Biography of Seacole.” n.d. In National Library of Jamaica. Kingston: National Library of Jamaica.

Digital Library of the Caribbean (DLOC). n.d. University of Florida.

Hadley, Louisa. 2010. Neo-Victorian Fiction and Historical Narrative: The Victorians and Us. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Heilmann, Ann, and Llewellyn, Mark. 2010. Neo-Victorianism: The Victorians in the  Twenty-First Century, 1999-2009. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hughes, Kathryn. n.d. “Victorian Gender and Sexuality.” In Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians. London: British Library.

Perry, Seamus. n.d. “‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’: Making Poetry from War.” In Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians. London: The British Library.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. (1890) n.d. Charge of the Light Brigade [text and audio recording]. Poetry Archive. The sound recording on this site comes frm the British Library Sound Archive, London.

Youngs, Tim. 2014. “Echoes of Empire.” In Discovering Literature: Romantics & Victorians. London: British Library.

Developer Biography

Heidi Kaufman is Associate Professor of English at the University of Oregon. She works on nineteenth-century literary culture, archives, and digital humanities. Her forthcoming book, Strangers in the Archive: Literary Evidence and London’s East End (University of Virginia, expected publication 2022) explores the creation and study of archives as a response to cultural silences and marginalized perspectives. Her corresponding digital archive, The East End Digital Library, creates a space for engaging with writing from the East End of London and of responding to absences in the cultural record. She teaches courses in nineteenth-century literature, digital humanities, and archival theory.

Header Image Caption

Cram, George Franklin. “Map of the Island of Jamaica.” Cram’s Modern Atlas, by George Franklin Cram, 1901. Public domain.

Page/Lesson Plan Citation (MLA)

Heidi Kaufman, les. plan dev. “Autobiographical Writing.” Kira Braham, Indu Ohri, Breanna Simpson, collab. peer revs.; Adrian S. Wisnicki, les. plan clust. dev. Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom, 2021, https://undiscipliningvc.org/html/lesson_plans/seacole_undisciplining_autobiography.html.