Karen O’Brien

Karen O’Brien

Professorial Fellow; Professor of English Literature; Head of Humanities Division

Contact information



My teaching expertise and experience covers all aspects of British literature in the period, 1660-1830, and I also very much enjoy teaching Victorian poetry and fiction.  I am currently Head of the Humanities Division, as well as a member of the English Faculty, so I do not carry a full undergraduate teaching load, but I am always interested in supervising undergraduate or graduate work in my area of research expertise.  I am also happy to meet and talk informally to students about their work.

I have supervised and examined PhDs on a large range of topics related to the literature and intellectual culture of the eighteenth century and Romantic period, including dissertations on literature and the Caribbean, Jane Austen, eighteenth-century novels, John Dryden, Catharine Macaulay, and David Hume. I was an undergraduate at University College in the 1980s, and am very much a beneficiary of my Oxford education, as well as the time I spent at the Sorbonne and at the University of Pennsylvania.


My research focuses on the literary and intellectual history of the British, American and French Enlightenments.  I have written extensively about the historical writing and culture of the British Enlightenment, and about the development of social thinking in this period, particularly as it related to a new understanding of the role of women. My books include Narratives of Enlightenment:  Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon (1997) and Women and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Britain (2009).  Key authors include William Robertson, Edward Gibbon, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen and Thomas Robert Malthus.   I have recently co-edited and written the introduction to the 1750-1820 volume of The Oxford History of the Novel.  Most recently, I have co-edited The Cambridge Companion to Gibbon, and written about the cultural impact of Malthus and population theory in late Enlightenment period.   I share my research regularly with external audiences through public lectures and broadcasting.

Selected Publications

The Cultural and Literary Significance of Malthus’s 1803 Essay on the Principle of Population’ in Malthus’s 1803 Essay on the Principle of Population, ed. Shannon Stimson, (Yale University Press, forthcoming) [chapter]

‘Afterword’, New Perspectives on Malthus:  250th Anniversary Essays, ed. Robert Mayhew (Cambridge University Press, 2016)

‘Isaiah Berlin and Montesquieu:  An Acceptable Enlightenment?’ in Isaiah Berlin and the Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2017), chapter 5. [chapter]

The Oxford History of the Novel in English, volume 2, 1750-1820, eds. Karen O’Brien and Peter Garside (OUP, 2015) [book]

‘English Enlightenment Histories, 1750-1815’ in The Oxford History of Historical Writing, volume 3, ed. Donald Woolf et al (Oxford University Press, 2012), chapter 25. [chapter]

‘The Return of the Enlightenment’, American Historical Review, 115 (2010), pp.1426-35 [article]

Women and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Britain. (Cambridge University Press, March, 2009) [book]

Narratives of Enlightenment:  Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon (Cambridge University Press, 1997, paperback 2005). [book]

Colonial Emigration, Public Policy and Tory Romanticism, 1783-1830’ in Lineages of Empire:  The Historical Roots of British Imperialist Thought, ed. Duncan Kelly, Proceedings of the British Academy, 155 (2009), pp.161-79. [article]

‘Poetry against Empire:  Milton to Shelley’ (British Academy Warton Lecture), Proceedings of the British Academy, 117 (2002), 269-96. [article]

Contact Univ

If you have any questions or need more information, just ask: