The reader encounters the English country manor house in ruins far too often to expect a Victorian novel to replace it with a domestic unit that holds to that formal prototype. Yet ever since F.R. Leavis argued for a national tradition of the novel that proceeded from Jane Austen and George Eliot — to the willful exclusion of Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Hardy — critics and scholars read domestic fiction for just such consistency. To explain why the disparities among the communities these novels ask us to imagine are more important than their formal continuities, I consider the three authors who, in my view, defined the novels of the period as indelibly Victorian. Novels from writers like Brontë, Dickens, and Hardy raise precisely the questions that the literary critical tradition tries to smooth away: How do these novels expose the traditional manor house as no longer able to provide what Hannah Arendt called a “facsimile” of the nation? How do these novelists express the need for something more or different in the way of community, and what form of human agency, if any, rises from the debris of courtship rituals and family life to help them create one? Finally, what advantages over a prosperous country estate might this leaner, meaner model of the English household offer to the novel reader?
My project focuses on the English novel during a period when authors of all kinds were called on to respond to the scientific redefinition of human life and an equally disruptive transformation in the way that people made their living. When it came to imagining a community that could withstand the shocks of rapid industrialization, novels — as the self-anointed discourse of everyday life and personal experience — were ideally positioned to respond critically as well as creatively. The Victorian novel had a particular genius for repurposing outworn notions of friendship, love, sexual attraction, and antagonism as the means of forming family ties that could, in equal parts, resist and accommodate the economic pressures and social priorities of an industrial nation. The question is how — or, more specifically, according to what principle and by means of what agency — did Victorian novelists reconceptualize and mobilize emotion?
By the time of David Hume and Adam Smith, as A.O. Hirschman observes, the eighteenth century had individuated the early modern passions and, at least in theory, had resituated them under the control of greed, which political and moral philosophers had recuperated in the form of economic interest. That they provide the common thread of concern in works of Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Malthus, and the Brontë sisters tells us that “the passions” had returned with a vengeance in the early nineteenth century as the force of nature responsible both for keeping the individual alive and for allowing a species to prosper and expand through sexual reproduction. Thus, by 1859, this force could be seen as engineering the indeterminate and open-ended sequence of transformations laid out in Darwin’s Origin of Species.In a sequence of chapters, I show how the “passions” similarly produced new and decidedly strange social encounters requiring different methods of conceptual and social management. What amounted to a historically new body driven by natural instincts common to the species proved fundamentally incompatible with the enlightened economic reason and moral sensibility that had claimed to curb and channel human desire. This body clearly posed a formal challenge for those who saw it as the novel’s task to maintain the continuity of heart and home in an economic world that seemed capable of sustaining neither.
The challenge was for novelists to develop a formal means of socializing sexual attraction so that it, paradoxically, might provide a way to stabilize domestic life in a destabilized economy. While the solution for novelists turned out to be a relatively simple matter of closing the gap between sexual and social reproduction, their method of achieving that closure was not. To explain how I understand this problem and why I hold it responsible for the eccentricities that tell me I am reading a Victorian novel, my dissertation proceeds through a sequence of paired readings that show how selected novelists adjusted the concept of community to deal with sweeping economic change. To be more specific, I consider novels by Austen, Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Hardy, and Bram Stoker in relation to philosophic and scientific works by Immanuel Kant, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx, and James Clerk Maxwell, respectively, to show that both novelist and intellectual addressed the same problem and did so in remarkably complementary ways. Each group of texts, as I read them, seizes on some dimension of the economic crisis as an opportunity to reimagine what would happen if the principle of mutuality were to prevail over competitive prowess in an intellectual environment that might otherwise conclude that human life was a game of elimination.