Representations of the aristocratic body in Victorian literature

Boucher, Abigail Kate (2015) Representations of the aristocratic body in Victorian literature. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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This thesis examines the representations of the aristocratic body in Victorian literature. This thesis argues that the authors often wrote, coded, and interpreted an aristocrat’s physical form as a paradoxical object which reflected many of the complex interclass issues and socio-economic transitions seen throughout the Victorian era. By exploring distinct, sequential genres and types of ‘popular’ fiction in this dissertation, I investigate a broad-spectrum literary treatment of aristocratic bodies as cultural paradoxes: for the same usage of the aristocratic body to crop up again and again in disparate, discrete, and hugely popular forms of literature speaks to the nineteenth-century resonance of the aristocratic body as a codeable symbol and textual object.
I use what is termed ‘popular fiction’: fiction largely excluded from the canon, yet with a very large contemporary readership and authors or genres which continued to be widely read immediately following the publication of those individual texts. Popular fiction is, by its very nature, the type of literature that can most reasonably be considered to represent the general, broad-spectrum views of large populations, and in doing so these texts can be used to determine wide-scale desires, anxieties, and expectations surrounding the subjects they contain.
Body theory and gaze theory serve as the overarching foundation for exploring the portraiture of aristocratic characters by authors from all classes, although individual chapters deal with their own theoretic approaches to the texts examined within them. Chapter 1 on silver fork fiction from the 1820s to the 1840s uses socio-economic theory, including Bourdieu’s idea of habitus to examine the genre’s treatment of aristocratic bodies as consumer goods and luxury products, which in turn reflected contemporary shifts in social and economic class hegemony. Chapter 2 on G.W.M. Reynolds’s radical 1840s to 1850s serial, The Mysteries of the Court of London, uses the medical humanities and masculinity theory to investigate the text’s endemic infertility in aristocratic men; Reynolds uses the biology of aristocratic male bodies as the locus for moralistic discussions about primogeniture and politics. Chapter 3 on the sensation fiction of Mrs Henry (Ellen Price) Wood utilises feminist theory to illustrate Wood’s portrayal of female aristocrats as bodiless, and yet continually gazed upon; Wood uses the aristocratic female body as a magnifying glass to depict the nineteenth-century female experience, in particular the paradoxes of adhering to private, domestic ideologies while at the same time fulfilling the requirements of the public gaze. Chapter 4 explores the influence of evolutionary theory upon two sister-genres of the fin de siècle Medieval Revival: Ruritanian fiction in Part 1 and a genre I have named the Evolutionary Feudal in Part 2. In Part 1, the aristocratic body is represented as outside of evolution; the genre provides escapism from Darwinism and fin de siècle anxieties of history and (d)evolution by whitewashing the feudal era and subscribing to Thomas Carlyle’s theories of divinely- or cosmically-appointed leaders. Part 2 focuses on texts which depict a post-apocalyptic world returning to a feudal Dark Age, and in which aristocratic bodies are seen evolving or devolving; rather than whitewashing history, the Evolutionary Feudal locates history’s darkest origins in the aristocratic body as a way of predicting possible futures and coping with the concerns of degeneration.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Aristocracy, class, body theory, gaze theory, Victorian literature and culture, popular fiction, genre fiction, long nineteenth century, gender and sexuality, medical humanities, consumerism, consumption
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities > School of Critical Studies > English Literature
Supervisor's Name: Jenkins, Professor Alice
Date of Award: 2015
Depositing User: Abigail Kate Boucher
Unique ID: glathesis:2015-7059
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 05 Feb 2016 16:41
Last Modified: 30 Jan 2019 10:59

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