Lecture series on The Powers of the Novel will set classic novels against contemporary works, seeing what Daniel Defoe shares with Kazuo Ishiguro, or how Sarah Waters has learnt from Charlotte Bronte 

Gresham College, London’s oldest higher Education Institution, is delighted to announce the appointment of Professor John Mullan as a Visiting Professor of English Literature.

Mullan is Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London and has had a long career researching 18th and 19th-century literature. He is a writer, journalist and broadcaster who has published on Jane Austen (What Matters in Jane Austen?) and has just finished a book about Charles Dickens; he has also published widely on contemporary fiction.

Visiting Professor John Mullan said:

"How did the novel - that upstart literary form - come to dominate the literary marketplace?  How do novels seize and absorb the attention of their readers? In these three lectures for Gresham College I will look at the formal tricks and devices of modern literary fiction, used by writers like Karl Ove Knaussgaard, Ian Rankin and Hilary Mantel, but also see how these reach back to the innovations of the great eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novelists like Sterne, Austen and Dickens. It will, I hope, show that the bravest, strangest fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is still alive to readers – but also to writers.”

As a Visiting Professor at Gresham he will continue the College’s tradition of delivering free public lectures within the City of London and beyond. During the academic year, Gresham College fills auditoriums for its lectures – a total of 130 a year. All Gresham lectures are live-streamed. More than 2,500 past lectures are freely available to view on the College’s website.

Dr Simon Thurley, Provost of Gresham College, said:

“Professor John Mullan is a brilliant communicator and academic with a world-class reputation. We are delighted to have him bringing his wit and insight to talk about the novel at Gresham this year.”

The Lectures

Gresham College Professors have been giving free public lectures since 1597. Visiting Professor lecture series supplement lectures by Gresham’s ten professors; the College also hosts guest lectures from a range of illustrious speakers selected from the worlds of academia, the arts, law, medicine, politics and industry.  You can read more about the College’s history here.

In 2020-21, Visiting Professor John Mullan will be lecturing on The Powers of the Novel

How does fiction make itself seem like fact? Our lecturer John Mullan begins where novels begin: with Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which showed every novel that followed how to make a ‘strange surprising’ story seem entirely ‘probable’ (the word that eighteenth-century pioneers of fiction liked to use). He will explore the tradition of factuality in the English novel, ending with the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro and examples of recent auto-fiction.

Why did stories of criminals become irresistible for novelists? Starting with works like Moll Flanders in the eighteenth century, this lecture will go on to examine the role of criminals in Dickens, keen to let his readers and characters experience what Pip in Great Expectations calls ‘the taint of crime’. To what ends? How does the recent genre fiction of novelists like Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell return us to the transgressive pleasures of Defoe’s criminal autobiographies?

From Horace Walpole to Ann Radcliffe, renegade novelists of the eighteenth century wanted to claim back the supernatural for fiction and so invented the Gothic Novel. This lecture will pursue the gift of Gothic to later novelists, seeing how great Victorian novelists like Emily Brontë, Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens were entranced by the supernatural. Finally, it will look at how the possibility of supernatural explanation contemporary energises novelists like Hilary Mantel and Sarah Waters.


About Visiting Professor John Mullan

John Mullan studied for a BA in English and then a PhD at King’s College, Cambridge. He has published widely on eighteenth-century century literature and has lectured (especially on Jane Austen) throughout Europe and the USA. He is currently Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London and Head of the English Department at UCL.

Throughout his career, Mullan has maintained a keen interest in public education; he taught English and Maths at Pentonville Prison in London at the start of his career; he works regularly for the Prince’s Teaching Institute and is a Patron of the English and Media Centre (both working with Schools).

Mullan is a popular and academic book writer, a lecturer and broadcaster, and he reviews for The Guardian, and the Evening Standard, as well as for the London Review of Books, the New Statesman and the Times Literary Supplement. He is a frequent contributor to literary discussions on BBC Radio and was a judge for the Man Booker Prize in 2012.

Gresham During Coronavirus/ COVID-19

During the lockdown period in the UK Gresham College has live-streamed as many lectures as possible online. We are currently expecting to start the 2020-21 academic year online-only, but to gradually introduce in-person audiences as lockdown eases.

Note to Editors: 

Further information and photos from Lucia Graves in the press office: 07799 738 439 or l.graves@gresham.ac.uk

As lockdown eases, press tickets will be available for lectures, and embargoed transcripts are sometimes available ahead of time: please email Lucia.

John Mullan’s book, The Artful Dickens, Tricks and Ploys of the Great Novelist, a book of 13 essays, will be published by Bloomsbury on 3 October, on the 150th anniversary of his death. https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/the-artful-dickens-9781408866818/

You can read more about Gresham College’s rebrand and new Grasshopper here. https://www.gresham.ac.uk/news/new-visual-identity