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Victorian Britain

Victorian Britain

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Victorian Britain

Course No. 8490
Professor Patrick N. Allitt, Ph.D.
Emory University
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4.7 out of 5
77 Reviews
81% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 8490
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is well illustrated and features more than 225 portraits, maps, and illustrations that take you back in time to Victorian England. Portraits include those of Queen Victoria, Benjamin Disraeli, Florence Nightingale, and Charles Darwin; maps chart the spread of Victorian London's city streets and reveal the epic scope of the British Empire's colonial project in Africa; and illustrations and early photographs document everything from The Great Exhibition of 1851 to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Celebration. There are on-screen spellings and definitions to help reinforce material for visual learners.
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Course Overview

Darwin. Gladstone. Disraeli. Dickens. Meet the pioneering, paradoxical Britons of the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). Through peaceful and gradual change they built one of the world's first industrial democracies—in a class-bound society with a powerful landed aristocracy and a negative view of business. They gloried in a globe-spanning and relatively humanely run empire—even as it distracted them from underlying economic weaknesses that presaged Britain's 20th-century decline. They were also intensely sentimental—yet ignored extreme squalor and hardship in their midst.Consider these other apparent contradictions:

  • They became history's first campaigners against slavery and pursued a host of reformist, often religiously inspired causes with zeal and vision—yet tolerated child labor and the Opium War.
  • They were quick to exploit new technologies, including the steam engine, cast-iron construction, and gas lighting—yet lost their economic leadership to Germany and America.
  • The Victorians created the cityscape of modern Britain—visible today except for what was destroyed by bombing in World War II—while consciously trying to re-create earlier styles.
  • They faced rapid and sweeping scientific, historical, and technological shifts—yet avoided massive upheavals that tore at other European and Atlantic societies in their day.
  • And in their trademark style, the Victorians even reformed cricket, turning it from a riotous diversion for hard drinkers and gamblers into a byword for flannel-clad decency and goodhearted fair play that crossed class lines and brought together the best features of democracy and aristocracy.

Victorian Britain: Strengths and Foibles

This course is a chronological journey into the Victorian story with all its strengths and foibles and invites you to reflect on its lessons both positive and negative.

You move from the unexpected ascension to the throne of teenaged Princess Victoria in 1837 to her death in 1901 as the Boer War neared its end.

You learn about the lives of Victorian women; the situation facing working people and the rise of trade unionism; Victorian achievements in art, literature, architecture, and music; and what Leonard Woolf called "the seriousness of games" and of leisure-time activities as windows on Victorian life.

You discuss the important role played by Christianity as a force for both principled adherence to tradition and principled pursuit of change; and the influence of science and the debates over its impact that animated the Victorians.

You learn what the Victorians believed about education; the questions raised by Britain's rule over its Empire, the problems of poverty and crime; the discoveries of Victorian explorers in Africa; and more.

All in all, you will find it a remarkable tour of a remarkable age. And one of the highlights of it, as Professor Patrick N. Allitt explains, is something that never happened.

The Dog That Did Not Bark

Arthur Conan Doyle's stories about Sherlock Holmes are among the best-loved literary legacies from the Victorian age. In one of them, "Silver Blaze" (first published in London's Strand magazine in December 1892), a crucial piece of evidence is something that did not happen—what Holmes calls "the curious incident" of the dog that did not bark.

In Britain there was nothing like the French Revolution, the revolutions of 1848, the Paris Commune, the Italian and German wars of unification, or the American Civil War.

Understanding how the British and their institutions managed peacefully to accommodate and manage the currents of change is one of the main themes in this course.

And the change was vast. With the culmination of the Industrial Revolution, Britain had gone decisively from being a mostly rural and agricultural society to being a land of large industrial cities.

Much of the credit, Professor Allitt argues, goes to able leaders.

Gladstone and Disraeli

"The first was Victoria herself," he says, "who came to the throne at a time when the monarchy was at a low ebb thanks to the foibles and derelictions of her predecessors. Her example of probity and assurance helped make the monarchy a symbol of stability and national unity that served Britain well. Therefore, the age deserves to be named after her for more than accidental reasons."

But above all were the two great prime ministers, the Liberal William Gladstone (1809-1898) and the Conservative Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881). Between them they dominated the political landscape and played crucial roles in helping Britain absorb and creatively adapt to the massive changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution and the rise of democracy.

Each in his own way was a remarkable character, and their clashes and collaborations (whether overt or tacit) are justifiably the stuff of legend.

Victorian Firsts

Victorian Britain was the first society to:

  • go from majority illiterate to near-universal basic literacy
  • abolish public executions, in 1868
  • offer free universal public schooling, beginning with Prime Minister William Gladstone's Education Act of 1870
  • build railroads, steam-powered mills, and iron-hulled ships
  • create a public building lit by electric lights (the Savoy Theatre in London, custom-built for Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta productions in 1881).

British doctors such as Sir Joseph Lister were early advocates of such innovations as anesthesia and sterile procedure, while Florence Nightingale essentially invented modern nursing during the Crimean War.

British engineers and architects were the first to build with cast iron and plate glass, creating such magnificent structures as Scotland's Firth of Forth railroad bridge (still standing) and London's Crystal Palace.

A Chorus of Victorian Voices

One of the joys—and for professional historians, challenges—of studying Victorian history is the sheer wealth of sources. It was a literate age, and one of the first societies in which statistics were systematically collected, analyzed, and reported on.

Queen Victoria herself was a faithful diarist and kept up a huge and lively correspondence. Among the highlights quoted in these lectures are the 21-year-old queen's excited and warmly amorous impressions of her husband-to-be Prince Albert, her contrasting thoughts about Gladstone and Disraeli, and her touching and revealing letter of condolence to Mary Todd Lincoln, written only a few years after Victoria herself had been suddenly and tragically widowed—and from which she never recovered.

A Wealth of Information from a Well-Documented Era

Professor Allitt also cites:

  • Disraeli's tart opinion of Gladstone, as well as a letter of Disraeli's to the queen that stands as a minor masterpiece of artful flattery (no wonder she liked him best)
  • Gladstone's explanation of why he, as a devout Christian, favored the controversial step of seating an atheist member of Parliament
  • a clergyman's hilarious parody of the turgid prose of "social Darwinist" Herbert Spencer
  • Winston Churchill's description of what he experienced during the last full-dress cavalry charge in British military history at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898
  • recollections of affairs by the unknown author of My Secret Life, an 11-volume memoir of one middle-class man's travels through the sexual underworld
  • a Lancashire housemaid's remembrance of what Christmas was like for servants
  • a reforming journalist's heartrending account of hardship and deprivation among poor children in London
  • an Evangelical reformer's horrified account of the boisterous, alcohol-soaked festivities surrounding village holidays.

The End of an Era

When Queen Victoria died in 1901, she left behind a nation indelibly marked by the Victorian legacy, for good and for ill.

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36 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Victorian Paradox
    Britain during the age of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) is a society very close to us in many ways, and one of the first to embody the characteristic modern paradoxes with which we still deal. This makes it especially worthwhile to study. x
  • 2
    Victoria’s Early Reign—1837-1861
    The teenage girl who ascended the throne upon her uncle's death had never expected to become queen. She was crowned at a time when the monarchy was at a low ebb, yet her authority and assurance would help make her name the byword for an age. x
  • 3
    The Industrial Revolution—1750-1830
    Political stability and improved farming methods helped make Britain the world's first industrial country. Wealth and squalor were both much in evidence as factories, steam engines, and time clocks imposed a new order on human life. x
  • 4
    Railways and Steamships
    Where were the first railways in Britain—and hence the world—built? What was the "parent" technology from which they were derived? And what other advances in transport did they help lead to? x
  • 5
    Parliamentary Reform and Chartism
    In 1830, only 1 in 20 Britons had the vote. There was no secret ballot, and Parliament was riddled with "rotten boroughs." The Reform Act of 1832 abolished many old constituencies, created new ones, and cautiously expanded the franchise. Chartists pushed for much more. x
  • 6
    The Upper- and Middle-Class Woman
    Courtship, marriage, and motherhood were central for women from the higher classes. Those eager for higher learning and careers faced many obstacles, but a determined few such as Florence Nightingale and George Eliot showed what could be done. x
  • 7
    The Working-Class Woman
    The stark contrasts in Victorian life are apparent in the lives of the poorer majority of women who had to work, almost always at difficult, low-paid, and unhealthy jobs. x
  • 8
    The State Church and Evangelical Revival
    Britain's established church, the Anglican Church or Church of England, felt currents of reform and evangelical revival even as it faced diverse challenges from new ideas and social conditions. x
  • 9
    The Oxford Movement and Catholicism
    In the 1830s and '40s, the Oxford Movement stressed the supernatural aspects of the Church of England. Two of its luminaries, Henry Manning and John Henry Newman, would become leaders of Roman Catholics in Britain. x
  • 10
    Work and Working-Class Life
    The Industrial Revolution did not sweep Britain evenly or all at once, though for most the mills, mines, and shops with their clocks, whistles, and machines meant a whole new—and not always welcome—way of thinking about labor and the use of time. x
  • 11
    Poverty and the “Hungry Forties”
    Industry and city life made poverty more visible and shocking. Utilitarianism, evangelicalism, and works of writers like Charles Dickens roused the conscience as never before. Private philanthropy strove to fill the gaps left by the New Poor Law and its system of dreaded workhouses. x
  • 12
    Ireland, Famine, and Robert Peel
    On "John Bull's Other Island," the potato blight that first struck in 1846 threw millions into near or absolute starvation; sparked mass migration to England, Canada, and the United States; and set off shock waves that crippled England's ruling Tory party for decades. x
  • 13
    Scotland and Wales
    Britain's "Celtic fringes" began to resemble England in crucial ways, witnessing the growth of industrial cities. At the same time, both the Scots and the Welsh showed a penchant for elaborate and sometimes fanciful national traditions. x
  • 14
    Progress and Optimism
    The Great Exhibition of 1851 and its centerpiece, the Crystal Palace, typified the Victorians' belief in improvement of all kinds, material and moral. So did Saltaire, the model workers' town built by the Yorkshire entrepreneur Titus Salt. x
  • 15
    China and the Opium War
    When the Manchu Dynasty barred British merchants from selling illegal but popular opium in China, the merchants called on British arms to force the trade between 1839 and 1842. x
  • 16
    The Crimean War—1854-1856
    Britain's first European war since Waterloo saw many "firsts." Get the inside story on the charge of the Light Brigade, the pioneering medical work of Florence Nightingale, and the investigative reporting of the London Times's W. H. Russell. x
  • 17
    The Indian Mutiny—1857
    In the mid-19th century, fewer than 50,000 British colonial troops and officials ruled 200 million Indians. What caused the famous sepoy rebellion? How did the British put it down? How did it change their policies toward India? x
  • 18
    Victorian Britain and the American Civil War
    The war pulled Britain several ways. Economic and diplomatic interests suggested alliance with the Confederacy, but religious and humanitarian feeling backed the Union, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation. x
  • 19
    The British in Africa—1840-1880
    Famous explorers such as Richard Burton and David Livingstone criss-crossed Africa seeking variously to increase knowledge, preach the Christian gospel, suppress the Arab slave traders, and develop economic opportunities. x
  • 20
    Victorian Literature I
    Several of the greatest and best-loved writers in the history of the English language were Victorians, including Dickens, George Eliot, Trollope, and the Brontë sisters. Their works gives us a vivid picture of Victorian life. x
  • 21
    Art and Music
    Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the great critics John Ruskin and Walter Pater, and the immortal Gilbert and Sullivan—whose gently satirical operettas are splendid windows on the age—are among the characters you will meet in this lecture. x
  • 22
    The prestige of science and technology grew, even as the works of geologist Charles Lyell and the biologist Charles Darwin stirred intense debates over the relationship between scientific research and religious belief. x
  • 23
    Medicine and Public Health
    The Victorian era was a time when death at any age was a common phenomenon. Medical advances were substantial, however, with doctors becoming professionals and anesthesia, sterile procedures, and public-sanitation measures pointing the way. x
  • 24
    How did Victorian architecture—so many examples of which can still be seen around the British Isles today—reflect Victorian life and the Victorian mind? Who were the great Victorian architects, and where can you see their masterpieces? x
  • 25
    Improved schooling was among the Victorians' great accomplishments: In 1830, more than half of all Britons could not read or write. By 1900, nearly everyone had at least some elementary literacy. x
  • 26
    Trade Unions and the Labour Party
    British workers felt a strong class solidarity out of which sprang unions and later the Labour Party, founded in 1900. Eight years earlier, unionists' votes had made Keir Hardie the first working-class MP. x
  • 27
    Crime and Punishment
    Crime was a grave problem for the Victorians. To deal with it, they founded the first modern police forces and prisons, and enacted reforms such as abolishing public executions and the jailing of debtors. x
  • 28
    Gladstone and Disraeli—1865-1881
    These two colossal figures bestrode the world of politics, setting the benchmark for all future prime ministers. Their skills enabled Britain to adjust to rapid change without the unrest that tore at other Western countries. x
  • 29
    Ireland and Home Rule
    Among the consequences of democratic political reforms was the rise of the Irish Home Rule Party and its charismatic leader, Charles Stewart Parnell. Parnell fell in an 1890 divorce scandal and died in 1891, but the Irish Question did not go away. x
  • 30
    Democracy and Its Discontents
    Gladstone and Lord Salisbury, Disraeli's successor, continued to handle Britain's growing democratization with skill. Meanwhile, the Empire grew apace, but its splendor masked underlying economic and other weaknesses. x
  • 31
    The British in Africa—1880-1901
    What drove Britain to become deeply involved politically from one end of the continent to the other? What did the Empire's difficult struggles with the Boer settlers of southern Africa presage? x
  • 32
    Later Victorian Literature
    The late Victorian years boasted an intense concentration of brilliant authors and a series of lively, even bitter, debates about the meaning of literary art and the place of morality in it. x
  • 33
    Among other things, this talk explains why informed reflection on cricket and seaside holidays is essential if one wants to understand the Victorian soul. By their pastimes shall ye know them. x
  • 34
    Domestic Servants
    Domestic service employed many men, and was the commonest type of job for women in Victorian Britain. What was it like to be "downstairs," and why did late Victorians so often lament that "you can't find good help nowadays?" x
  • 35
    Victoria After Albert—1861-1901
    The Queen's sorrow over losing her husband never left her. Yet she endured, and her golden (1887) and diamond (1897) jubilee celebrations occasioned great public celebrations and a festive, imperial mood in London. x
  • 36
    The Victorian Legacy
    Looking back at the whole period, what are some of the most striking things that leap out at us? What does reflecting on them tell us about the past, about our own day and age, and about the nature of historical understanding itself? x

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Your professor

Patrick N. Allitt

About Your Professor

Patrick N. Allitt, Ph.D.
Emory University
Dr. Patrick N. Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, where he has taught since 1988. The holder of a doctorate in history from the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Allitt-an Oxford University graduate-has also taught American religious history at Harvard Divinity School, where he was a Henry Luce Postdoctoral Fellow. He was the Director of Emory College's Center for Teaching...
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Victorian Britain is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 77.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent lectures The lectures are excellent, presented by an acknowledged expert in the Victorian world. My only concern is that they are a bit dated in delivery, from 2003. The addition of pertinent graphics and illustrations can certainly enhance several concepts.
Date published: 2018-02-25
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Awful professor Worst professor I've had in 30 or so GC's. Will be returned.
Date published: 2018-02-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So Far Away--and Yet So Very Close I listened to this course immediately after finishing England: from the Tudors to the Stuarts, and how happy I am that I did! There's only a gap of 123 years in a period spanning 416 years between these two courses. The earlier one focused in particular on the movement of Great Britain from a Kingdom to a "constitutional monarchy". This one focused on how Great Britain became the first industrial country on earth and, for a brief time, its largest empire. Professor Allitt suffered a little bit by the immediate comparison to the prior lecturer, Professor Bucholz, who had a marvelous dry sense of humor and superb rhetorical style, but nevertheless Dr. Allitt is also a fine historian and gave a fully engaging series of 36 lectures. He tries to cover the broadest possible range of subjects from this period: religion, politics, literature, architecture, trade and commerce, the class structure of England, its colonial policies and practices, and yes, its racism, and its interesting ability to simultaneously hold in the mind that their task was to enlighten and Christianize the natives---and also to steal all they could from them, and to crush them if they revolted. This was the "white man's burden", quite openly advocated in Victorian days--and which translated, in America, to the idea of "manifest destiny". He dwells on several unique aspects of British history in this period: not only that it was the first country to "industrialize", but also how it essentially avoided any revolutionary upheavals in its society for roughly 200 years, while most other countries went through one or more of these (such as America's civil war, multiple revolutions in France, and so on). How, despite being overtly racist, it made the decision to prohibit the practice of slavery throughout its empire, and even tried to suppress its practice in areas which it didn't even control, well before Lincoln issued the "Emancipation Proclamation" in the United States. Summing up toward the end, he enumerates some of the strengths of Victorian Britain, and some of its prominent weaknesses. Many historians apparently point to Queen Victoria's "diamond jubilee" in 1897 as the high-point of the British empire. By the time she passed away in 1901, signs of rot and decay were already becoming apparent even before the great tragedy of World War I. Sitting here in America in 2018, having listened to this course on Victorian England, I can see this country's trajectory as being so strongly influenced from the outset by both the strengths and weaknesses of Great Britain, from which so many of the early European immigrants came here, and in other aspects as repeating, in a later century, the same ascendancy and decline which Great Britain underwent in the Victorian Era. I learned a lot; I forgot much but I will also retain much. If you live in any country which was once part of the British Empire, you are apt to find this history of interest.
Date published: 2018-01-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful, on industrial and social revolution A great series. I really like the way Professor Allitt explains the society changing from a largely illiterate farming country to a modern great industrial one and how railroads,industry, social class, laws and penal codes, navy, wars, all interact to make huge changes on all levels. Very entertaining as well as informative
Date published: 2018-01-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Covers all areas. I bought this because I read a lot about tjis time in history. Loved the presentor. He knew his material and being of English descent added the dialect. Would recommend it to anyone interested in Victoria it's a must.
Date published: 2017-12-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Prof. Allitt is a wonderful teacher of history Professor Allitt is a marvelous teacher of history. I have listened to all of his Great Courses and I cannot recommend them highly enough. Rather that giving a dry recital of facts he makes history come alive with insightful biographical detail. This may not please historians who see history as a process of impersonal objective forces, but it certainly entertains and informs the reader and makes his lectures stick in the listener’s mind. He does all this with aplomb and a sense of humor. I hope he will continue to produce courses for the Teaching Company.
Date published: 2017-11-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Professor, Interesting Lectures In case you couldn't tell by the title, this is a very specialized subject. This course basically covers Britain in the 1800s, which Queen Victoria ruled for most of the century. The professor does a good job of blending chronological history with topical history. What I mean by this is that the professor provides a good chronology and teaches the course generally in chronological order. However, he has special lectures from time-to-time on topical issues, such as the life of upper class women, lower class women, and servants. If I have one complaint, and it is a minor one, it is that I listened to this course shortly after listening to the professor's course on The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. There is consequently some overlap between the courses, so I wish I had spaced them out a little more than I did. However, the professor does a good job of minimizing the overlap and providing different perspectives.
Date published: 2017-08-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A very very thorough panorama These 36 lectures cover the lot: politics, literature, architecture, medicine, the Church. I think that the course is an absolute tour de force. The lecturer is engaging, personal without being egocentric, and thorough. One thing that I particularly liked was that he often illustrates what he says with extracts from 19th century literature. I thought the series was superb.
Date published: 2017-07-01
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