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School of English and Drama

Dr Heather Tilley, BA (Cambridge), MA, PhD (Birkbeck, University of London)


Lecturer in Victorian Literature



I grew up and went to school in London. After studying English at the University of Cambridge I embarked on postgraduate work in nineteenth-century literature and culture at Birkbeck. My PhD explored the relationship between blindness and literary culture in the Victorian period.

Following my PhD, I worked in the gallery sector in various curatorial roles, including at the National Portrait Gallery. I returned to academia as a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Birkbeck in 2013, after which I was a Career Development Fellow in the Medical Humanities at Birkbeck, funded by the Wellcome Trust. I joined Queen Mary in 2018.

Undergraduate Teaching

I have taught on:

  • ESH124: Reading, Theory and Interpretation
  • ESH124: Poetry
  • ESH279: Victorian Fictions
  • ESH315: Late Victorian Literature



Research Interests:

Nineteenth-century literature, and its relationship to:

  • The body and the senses; blindness
  • Visual and material cultures
  • Psychology and psycho-physiology
  • Disability theory and medical humanities

Recent and On-Going Research

My research explores the representation of embodied experience and disability in nineteenth-century literature and visual and material culture, and reappraises both canonical works alongside more neglected authors and texts.  As well as developing historicised readings of health and illness experiences in nineteenth-century culture, I am also interested in how theoretical approaches from disability studies and medical humanities shape our understanding of embodied identity in the period.

My research has focused extensively on the history of visual disability. I have published several articles on the cultural and literary history of blindness as well as curated several exhibitions and displays on the topic. My book Blindness and Writing: From Wordsworth to Gissing was published by Cambridge University Press in 2017.

My research on blindness has inspired a wider interest in sensory and embodied experience, and in July 2013 I organised an international, interdisciplinary conference on the theme of the Victorian Tactile Imagination. In November 2014 I edited a special issue based on this for 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century.

My new research project explores the changing ways in which paralysis was experienced by people in the nineteenth century, and represented in medical, scientific and psychological texts, literature and art in the nineteenth century. As part of this role I have also been involved in a collaborative project with Dr Carolyn Burdett (Birkbeck) re-examining Victorian Psychology.




  • Blindness and Writing: From Wordsworth to Gissing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017)


Articles and Chapters

  • ‘Portraying Blindness: Nineteenth-Century Images of Tactile Reading’, Disability Studies Quarterly, 38:3 (2018)
  • ‘Touching blind bodies: a critical inquiry into pedagogical and cultural constructions of visual disability in the nineteenth century’, co-authored with Jan Eric Olsen (University of Copenhagen), in The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), pp. 260-75.
  • ‘Introduction’, ‘The Victorian Tactile Imagination’, guest edited by Heather Tilley, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 19 (2014) (article). DOI:
  • ‘Waste matters: Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend and nineteenth-century book recycling’, in Book Destruction From the Medieval to the Contemporary, ed. by Adam Smyth and Gill Partington (Palgrave, 2014), pp. 152-172
  • ‘The Sentimental Touch: Dickens's Old Curiosity Shop and the Feeling Reader’, Journal of Victorian Culture, submission for a special issue on ‘Victorian Sentimentality’, 16:1 (2011), 226-41
  • ‘Wordsworth’s Glasses: The Materiality of Blindness in the Romantic Imagination’, in Illustrations, Optics and Objects in Nineteenth-Century Literary and Visual Culture, ed. by Luisa Calè and Patrizia Di Bello (Palgrave, 2010), pp. 44-61
  • ‘Frances Browne, the ‘blind poetess’: towards a poetics of blind writing’, Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, special issue ‘Blindness and Literature’, guest edited by Georgina Kleege, 3:2 (2009)
  • ‘Sentiment and Vision in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and The Cricket on the Hearth’, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 4 (2007), special issue Rethinking Victorian Sentimentality. DOI:



I would welcome enquiries from potential doctoral students interested in any of the areas of my research.

Public Engagement

I have curated two exhibitions at Birkbeck, ‘Touching the Book: Embossed Literature for Blind People in the Nineteenth Century’, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and ‘How We Read: A Sensory History of Books for Blind People’, as part of ‘Being Human: A Festival of the Humanities’, as well as a display at the National Portrait Gallery, ‘Facing Blindness: Visual Impairment in the Nineteenth Century’.

More recently, I have co-curated an exhibition on the relationship between arts and mental health, Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways: Selected Artists from the Adamson Collection and organised a workshop exploring practice-based issues in relation to curating the medical humanities.


Public lectures:

‘Victorian blindness: a history of advocacy’, National Archives (2015)

‘“Exhibiting Blindness as it Really is”: Portraits of Blind People in the Nineteenth Century’, Public lecture at the National Portrait Gallery (2013)