Mapping the British World in Eighty Days

In Fall 2022, students in ENGL 115: Introduction to British Literature at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign mapped all of the texts we read in class, exploring the assumptions, erasures, and desire embedded in British portrayals of space. You can view their work, and the explore the map they created, through the ArcGIS StoryMap below.

Maps not only represent space; they also create it. The way we choose to structure a map – how we place different locations in relation to one another, which places are centered and which put on the margins – effects the ways we interact with and imagine the world. Many of us, for example, are accustomed to modern navigational maps, with lines of longitude and latitude used to mark specific locations. But, what happens if, instead, we use landmarks or itineraries or the paths of ocean currents? What makes a place empty, wild, civilized, or dangerous? How do we know? What cultural indicators do maps give us? How do even the most objective maps orient us to space? In this class, we will follow a series of British novelists, poets, and travel writers around the world to explore the ways they imagined England, the British Isles, and the many places beyond Europe’s borders. If we’re lucky, we will also begin to understand how these historical accounts continue to affect our own ideas about ourselves and the world around us.

We will start with Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. Although Verne was a French author, he imagined a distinctly British character in Phileas Fogg and follows a distinctly British imperial map. As we follow Fogg on his journey, we will think critically about the places he visits through other maps and narratives, as well as contemporary artwork, imagined by British writers and cartographers. In so doing, we will explore British writing from each defined period of British history, as well as the British imagination and the world as it has been constructed by a history of British imperialism. We will also attempt to better understand issues of race, class, and gender through the ways in which maps invite us to imagine other people and places.

There will be some key themes and ideas that we will stay with throughout the semester, some of which may be new to you. Don’t worry! I will spend some of each class defining terms and inviting questions about the period and the literature we are reading. That said, this is a discussion-based class, and I expect you to participate enthusiastically in those discussions and come to class prepared.