Professor Helen Small

Merton Professor of English Language & Literature

I am interested in the connections between literature, intellectual history, and philosophy (especially moral and critical philosophy), primarily since 1830. My most recent book, The Value of the Humanities (2013) is a critical account of the claims standardly employed to defend the public value of the humanities. It identifies five main arguments:

  • that the Humanities study the meaning-making practices of culture, and bring to their work a distinctive understanding of what constitutes knowledge and understanding;
  • that they are useful to society in many ways, but tend to be at odds with, or at a remove from, the descriptions of ‘usefulness’ often preferred by economists;
  • that they contribute to human happiness;
  • that they are a force for democracy; and
  • that they are a good in themselves, to be valued 'for their own sake'.

Unlike many works in this field, The Value of the Humanities is not a polemic or a manifesto. Its purpose is to examine the grounds for each argument, and to test their individual and collective validity for the present day. My previous book, The Long Life (2007) explored the view that to understand old age we have to consider more fundamentally what it means to be a person, to have a life, to have or to lead a ‘good’ life and to be part of a just society. This was the first major consideration of old age in Western philosophy and literature since Simone de Beauvoir’s The Coming of Age, ranging from the writings of Plato through to recent work by (among others) Derek Parfit and Bernard Williams, and from Shakespeare’s King Lear through to Philip Roth and JM Coetzee. I am currently working on a book, funded by a Leverhulme Trust Fellowship, entitled The Function of Cynicism at the Present Time.

In addition, I regularly write essays about Victorian fiction, poetry, and public moralism, and I have edited several well-known and less well-known nineteenth-century literary works, including Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights, The Lifted Veil and Brother Jacob, The Eustace Diamonds, The Last Chronicle of Barset, and (with Stephen Wall) Little Dorrit. I am on the editorial board of the Journal of Victorian Culture and the advisory board of History of Humanities.


Most of my teaching is concentrated on Victorian and later literature. I also teach Critical Theory, and supervise undergraduate and graduate work in the cross-disciplinary areas of literature and philosophy, literature and intellectual history, and literature and history of science (primarily post 1830).



The Value of the Humanities (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013; pbk 2016); associated podcasts (5) at (1,307 downloads and streams on iTunesU as of 27 July 2016) and -should-we-study-humanities (118,153 downloads and streams)

The Long Life (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007; pbk 2010)

(ed. with Trudi Tate), Literature, Science, Psychoanalysis, 1830-1070: Essays in Honour of Gillian Beer (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003)

(ed), The Public Intellectual (Oxford: Blackwell Publications, 2002; pbk 2002)

Love’s Madness: Medicine, the Novel, and Female Insanity, 1800-1865 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996; pbk 1998)

(ed. with James Raven and Naomi Tadmor), The Practice and Representation of Reading in England (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007)


W M Thackeray, Vanity Fair, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford UP, 2015)

Anthony Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barset, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford UP, 2011)

Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford UP, 2011)

Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford UP, 1999)

George Eliot, ‘The Lifted Veil’ and ‘Brother Jacob’, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford UP, 1999)

Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (London: Penguin, 1998)—Introduction by Stephen Wall; revd edn with additional annotations (2003)

Introduction to a reprint edn of Walter Besant, All Sorts and Conditions of Men (Oxford UP, 1997)

Ménie Muriel Dowie, Gallia (London: Dent, 1995)

Recent essays

Essays and articles

(in press)

‘Realism v. Realpolitik: Trollope and the Parliamentary Career Manqué’, in Frederik Van Dam, David Skilton, and Ortwin de Graef (eds), The Edinburgh Companion to Anthony Trollope (Edinburgh UP, forthcoming 2018)

‘Emily Brontë and Degradation‘, in Alexandra Lewis (ed.), The Brontës and the Idea of the Human: Science, Ethics, and the Victorian Imagination (Cambridge UP, forthcoming 2018/19)


‘Speech beyond Toleration: On Carlyle and Moral Controversialism Now’, New Literary History 48.3 (2017), 531-54

The Future of the Humanities in the UK’, in Sapere Aude: The Future of the Humanities in British Universities (Stockholm: Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2017)

‘Does Self-Identity Persist into Old Age?’, in Geoffrey Scarre (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of the Philosophy of Aging (London: Palgrave, 2016) [print copy awaited]

‘Caprice: Individual Subjectivity in Literary Criticism’, in Rónán McDonald (ed.), The Values of Literary Studies: Critical Institutions, Scholarly Agendas (New York: Cambridge UP, 2015), pp. 27-43

‘The Situation of the Humanities in the UK’, in Dieter Lamping (ed.), Zur Situation der Geisteswissenshaften (Stuttgart: Kröner Verlag, 2015), 400-413

‘Fully Accountable’ [on qualitative accounting for the public good of the humanities, and conventions of realist representation], New Literary History 44.4 (2014), 539-60

‘Assisted Living: “Acting Naturally” in Room 335’, Age, Culture, Humanities, inaugural issue (2014), 91-121; online edn at

‘The Literary Example in Moral Philosophy Today’, boundary2 40.2 (2013), 41-51

‘The Double Standard of Ageing: On Missing Stendhal in England’, in Katharina Boehm and Anna Farkas (eds), Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Aging in Nineteenth-Century Culture (New York: Routledge, 2013), 210-31

‘Edward Upward and the Critique of Everyday Late Life’, in Benjamin Kohlmann (ed.), Edward Upward and Left-Wing Literary Culture in Britain (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2013), 145-62

‘Dispensing with Style’, in Daniel Tyler (ed.), Dickens’s Style (Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 2013), 253-77

‘George Eliot and the Cosmopolitan Cynic’, Victorian Studies 55.1 (Autumn 2012), 85-105

‘Against Self-Interest: Trollope and Realism’, Essays in Criticism 62.4, Special issue in memory of Stephen Wall (2012), 396-416

‘“Letting Oneself Go”: John Stuart Mill and Helmuth Plessner on Tears’, Litteraria Pragensia 22.43 Towards a Lachrimology: Tears in Literature and Cultural History, ed. Timothy Webb (July 2012), 112-27

‘The Function of Antagonism: Miroslav Holub and Roald Hoffmann’, in John Holmes (ed.), Science in Modern Poetry: New Directions (Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2012), 19-37

‘Subjectivity, Psychology, and the Imagination’, in Kate Flint (ed.), The Cambridge History of Victorian Literature, New Cambridge History of English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012), 487-509