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University of Oxford Faculty of English

Small, Helen

Position: Professor of English Literature; Tutorial Fellow, Pembroke College
College: Pembroke
Period/Subject: Victorian

E-mail address:

Research Interests:

I have recently published a study of the defences for the humanities that have been most influential in the 19th and 20th centuries and still exert some persuasive power. The study has a dual purpose: to provide a historical account of the arguments, and test their validity for the present day.

The traditions of defence considered are:

  • the claim that the humanities study the meaning-making practices of the culture, focusing on interpretation and evaluation, with an indispensable element of subjectivity. This claim has accrued supportive (but often incorrect) assumptions about differences between the humanities, sciences, and social sciences.
  • the claim that the humanities are (laudably) uselessness, at a remove from accounts of economic use value.
  • the argument (from J. S. Mill) for the pursuit of happiness.
  • the claim that ‘Democracy Needs Us’.
  • claims for intrinsic value.

I have also been working on several shorter pieces for delivery as conference papers, in the first instance, and essay publication subsequently:

  • ‘George Eliot and the Cosmopolitan Cynic’
  • ‘Emily Brontë and Degradation’
  • ‘The Double Standard’ (on ageing and gender, with some concentration on the Victorian period, but also a wider theoretical remit)
  • a piece on uses of literary examples in the writing of philosophers (for a panel at the MLA, January 2012).

The first of these pieces is an opportunity to do some preliminary work towards a monograph on cynicism in its various literary and philosophical guises, from classical antiquity to the present.

Teaching Areas:

English literature, 1740-present; critical theory; gender and writing.

Recent Publications:

The Value of the Humanities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)

'Subjectivity, psychology, and the Imagination', in Kate Flint (ed.) Cambridge History of Victorian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)

'The Function of Antagonism: Miroslav Holub and Ronald Hoffmann', in John Holmes (ed.) Science in Modern Poetry: New Directions (Liverpool University Press, 2012)

'Argument as Conflict: Then and Now', in Dinah Birch and Mark Llewellyn (eds.) Conflict and Difference in Nineteenth-Century Literature (Palgrave MacMillan, 2010)

The Long Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)—awarded the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, 2008

‘“What We Really Want Most out of Realism … ”: Feminist Theory and the Return of the Real’, in Matthew Beaumont (ed.), Adventures in Realism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), ch. 12

‘On Conflict’, in Dinah Birch and Mark Llewellyn (eds), Conflict and Difference in Nineteenth-Century Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)

Other Information:

Currently writing a chapter on ‘Subjectivity, Psychology and the Imagination' for the new Cambridge History of English Literature (Victorian volume, ed. Kate Flint), editing Wuthering Heights for World's Classics (OUP), and writing on the poetry of Miroslav Holub and Roald Hoffmann.

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