2014 Theses Doctoral
Active Distance: British Nineteenth-Century Literature and Images of the Past
How did British nineteenth-century literature articulate its relationship to the past? In Past and Present (1843), Thomas Carlyle introduces the Middle Ages through a description of what he believed the collar of a serf would have looked like, dwelling on the shine of the brass as it would have stood out against the green of the forest, as if it were a painting to be evaluated aesthetically for its color palette rather than part of a controversial defense of medieval feudalism. In Adam Bede (1859), George Eliot compares the eighteenth-century setting of her novel to a realist painting, pointing out the visual details that would appear unfamiliar to her contemporary readers, such a "mob-cap" or an old-fashioned spinning-wheel. These moments may appear like intermittent, typically Victorian examples of intrusive editorializing that risk repelling readers from engaging with the world of the past. But my dissertation shows that Carlyle and Eliot are part of a large and important body of Victorian historical texts that seek to engage their reader closer with their evocation of the past through the visual imagination. Romantic historiography had introduced the idea of seeing the past "in the mind's eye", and Victorian writers frequently asked their readers to explicitly treat the past as if it were itself an image. My dissertation argues that a tradition emerged during the nineteenth century which sought to develop that language of vision for a particular purpose: to observe the striking distance, and differences, between the past and the present. And the effect is not one of detachment but its opposite: historical distance is the connecting device that ties the reader to the text, across Victorian historical works.
My dissertation moves through the Victorian period broadly conceived, from 1820 to the 1890s, and across genres of novels, poetry and non-fiction prose. This breadth of scope is a consequence of my argument. Many critics treat, for instance, Thomas Macaulay's constant shifts between past and present as a feature of his idiosyncratic style, or Elizabeth Gaskell's minute descriptions of Napoleon-era uniforms as distinctive of the genre of realism. But I show that Victorian literature that deals with the past needs to be understood across styles and genres, in the broader cultural context of their era's fascination with historical distance. Throughout the nineteenth century, the emphasis on the gap between past and present serves to engage, rather than repel, the reader's imaginative investment in the world of the past. The distance between the past and the present works to immerse the Victorian reader more fully in the imagined past, thereby cultivating a more actively critical engagement with history.
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More About This Work
- Academic Units
- English and Comparative Literature
- Thesis Advisors
- Dames, Nicholas J.
- Ph.D., Columbia University
- Published Here
- October 15, 2014