Theses Doctoral

Ambient Worlds: Description and the Concept of Environment in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction

Hildebrand, Rebecca Jayne

This dissertation explores how the descriptive backgrounds of the Victorian novel helped to shape the emerging concept of environment in the nineteenth century. Thomas Carlyle introduced “environment” into English in 1827, spurring writers, scientists, and social thinkers to forge a diverse conceptual lexicon for describing the relationship between organisms and their material surroundings. Comte developed the idea of a singular organic “medium” that supports and nourishes all living beings, while Darwin imagined the plural “conditions of existence” as a chaotic field of competitive struggle. Whereas Zola’s “milieu” exerted destructive pressure on the individual, Spencer claimed that “environment” was in fact constitutive of life itself. This project argues that novelists turned to vivid description as a means of materializing these competing environmental discourses, and exploring their social and affective implications. From the noxious fogs of Bleak House, to Mary Mitford’s concern for the sufferings of uprooted vegetables, novelists gave detailed attention to the exchanges between individual bodies and the physical world. Each of my four chapters examines how a Victorian writer used a distinct type of description to explore an environmental concept: Mitford’s botanical detail and natural theology’s idea of correspondence between body and world; Eliot’s weather and Comte’s organic medium; Hardy’s architecture and Spencer’s theory of environment; and Stevenson’s islands and the discourse of circumstance. Whereas recent critical re-evaluations of description often prize its detachability from narrative, this dissertation thus argues that description was central to the Victorian novel’s ability to represent interactions between individuals and their surroundings. Through close analysis of the descriptive surrounds of nineteenth-century realist fiction (weather, atmosphere, landscape, architecture), this project shows how the novel’s described backgrounds shape and participate in plot in surprising ways, functioning not merely as static pictorial backgrounds to narrative, but rather as dynamic participants in it. The Victorian novel, this dissertation ultimately shows, places interactions between characters and their environments at the center, rather than the periphery, of its drama.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Marcus, Sharon
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 21, 2018