On the final day of the fall semester you could hear the sounds of a waltz, smell freshly-baked crumpets, and see a top hat—or three!—in room 1109 of the San Mateo campus. At the front of the room, next to a table of Victorian-inspired desserts, was a stack of programs that read, “Mrs. Pearl Bauer Presents a Victorian Salon.”
For months, 12th graders in Pearl Bauer’s course “Reading Like Victorians” explored Victorian literature by looking at the social, historical, and cultural context that bred such Victorian classics as Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.
“My hope was that they would understand that books weren’t written in a vacuum and to deeply understand that the historical and social context is crucial to understanding and engaging with the book,” said Pearl, who earned a Ph.D. in Victorian studies.
At the start of the semester, students learned that in the Victorian era, it was common practice for books to be written in serial form. David Copperfield, for example, was written as a 20-month serial between May 1849 and November 1850. For this reason, the Victorians’ practice of reading was similar to the way people in modern times watch broadcast television—they followed multiple serials concurrently, over a period of time, where the stories and their significance had time to enter social discourse. In that vein, students in Pearl’s class read three books concurrently—David Copperfield, Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins—to immerse themselves in the reading experience of a true Victorian.
Students learned that literary salons—intimate social gatherings held in homes (often bedrooms)—were a site for people to engage in intellectual exchange and enjoy performances of songs, poems, or literary and theatrical works. In addition to conversation, people often enjoyed fine food and a sense of intentional community building.
It was only fitting then that on the final day of the semester, students immerse themselves in the salon experience.
“We’re going to pretend we’re living in 1867,” Pearl told her students.
Students were invited to prepare a performance—a theatrical reading, a song, a dance—of their choice, to prepare a Victorian dessert, and, if they wanted, to don Victorian-inspired dress.
“After a full semester of reading, intense discussions about themes within our novels, and multiple writing assignments, the Victorian salon was a fun and hands-on way to end to the year,” said student Adrienne P. “Although performing was fun, I found it even more enjoyable to watch the performances from the rest of the class, which ranged from a traditional Victorian partner dance to a dramatic confrontation scene from David Copperfield.”
That traditional Victorian partner dance was a performance by Ajay T. and Connor M., who treated the class to a gentlemanly waltz and then invited their peers to join them in a group Viennese waltz. For the next two minutes the classroom transformed into a ballroom, making the 19th-century immersion a full mind-body experience.
Pearl wasn’t always sure this salon idea would be successful. Earlier this year when she was formulating her ideas for the class, she reached out to professional colleagues and former professors of hers, who all shared that they had never heard of a Victorian salon held at the high school level. Inspired by the Shakespeare-themed senior English seminars, in which students perform adaptations at the end of the spring semester, Pearl was confident that, though this had never seemingly been done at the high school level, her Nueva students were up to the task.
“The Victorian salon activity was a really engaging way to cap off the semester,” said Luca N. “Through a combination of culinary and theatrical immersion, I think we got a deeper appreciation for the Victorian context surrounding the texts we had been reading. Beyond that, reenacting—albeit awkwardly—some of the key scenes from our texts in small student groups was really fun. My group, in particular, decided to focus on a scene from David Copperfield, and tried to bring to life the exaggerated and eccentric personalities of the characters was an enjoyable challenge.”
Pearl was particularly impressed with her students’ dedication to the class and the salon—and their valiant attempts at Aristocratic English accents.
“I had students come to me saying it was their favorite English class ever, which I think is because we branched out from the literature to also focus on the social, historical, and cultural contexts,” she said. “As a teacher, one of my biggest missions is to make students realize that what we do inside these four walls is so tied to what we do outside the walls. This class makes that concrete.”
To immerse yourselves in the salon, check out the video below.