English Study Abroad Course Explores Literary London

A beloved intersession course whisks Manhattan College students into the world of Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens.

What’s the best way to begin a literary tour of London?brett ilie poses with big ben in london

Read Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hop aboard a red-eye to Heathrow with 15 strangers. Ascend from the Tube several hours later to greet Big Ben, the unmistakable icon of the U.K., marking the hour.

“All our eyes lit up and mouths dropped it’s unlike anything you could imagine,” education major Brett Ilie ’18 says of the unforgettable experience. It was the first of many as part of the most recent section of Literary London, a whirlwind intersession course that whisks students into the world of Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens.

The two-week journey developed and led by Heidi Laudien, Ph.D., from Dec. 27 - Jan. 11, spanned several centuries of British literature, using the storied city of London as its classroom.

There was no time to give into jetlag — it was off to the theater the first night. After reading Hamlet, students went to a reimagining of the Bard’s work at Trafalgar Studios, which successfully slashed the original five-hour marathon into an hour and a half six-person play. Afterwards, the group met with the playwright to discuss her artistic decisions.

“It was a fluke happening that we ran into the creative director and writer in the ladies room after the show,” Laudien says. “She heard us chatting about how brilliant we thought her revision was and she introduced herself. My students then had the opportunity to speak with her for close to a half hour. These chance happenings are invaluable and truly make the program a remarkable learning experience.”

Subsequent days featured an equally busy itinerary a carefully planned balance of intensive reading, class time and course work, with museum and site tours, from the National Museum, Portrait Gallery and British Museum to the Tower of London and Globe Theatre. Students witnessed the changing of the guards, chatted with locals, and sampled culinary classics, like pasties from Camden Market and chicken vindaloo on Brick Lane. They even got a taste of London’s contemporary theatre with a performance of Nice Fish starring BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) winner and recently knighted Mark Rylance.

students pose in front of the Globe Theater in LondonRunning annually since 2007, the 200-level course remains a favorite among English and non-English majors alike. With London as a home base, the class also ventured outside of the city limits to explore other touchstones of the literary realm, including Christ Church College in Oxford (the original Hogwarts), Stratford upon Avon (Shakespeare’s birthplace) and Bath (home to ruins of the Roman variety), gathering glimpses of the iconic English countryside along the way.

Visiting Bath was particularly illuminating for electrical engineering major Amy Sniffen ’18 who took the course as an opportunity to take an English elective and study literature.

“My favorite part of the course was reading Northanger Abbey,” says Sniffen. “It was really cool to see places that are mentioned in the book and to know that you're walking on the same stones that Jane Austen walked on when she lived in Bath. Additionally, Bath is a beautiful city and while we were there we saw the Roman Baths. The idea that people went there and bathed there hundreds of years ago was unbelievable.”

Of course, no study abroad experience is quite complete without exploring a host country on your own terms. Breaking up into informal groups, students took a turn on the London Eye, chatted over a pub lunch, danced in a nightclub, and perhaps most memorably, watched New Year’s Eve fireworks over the Thames.

“We all bonded and were freezing, but it was an amazing experience when we heard Big Ben ring, the fireworks went off and everyone started cheering,” Ilie says. “I think it was at that moment all of us knew we were going to have this special moment to share the rest of our lives. Truly a remarkable experience.”

“I went on this trip literally knowing no one and I came back here with 15 new friends, including our teacher who was literally one of us,” says English major Lilliana McHale ’19. “It showed me how important branching out of your comfort zone can be.”

By Sarah Schwartz