Theses Doctoral

Eccentric Conduct: Theatre and the Pleasures of Victorian Fiction

Wiet, Victoria

This dissertation uses the concept of erotic conduct to rethink theatre’s role in Victorian society and its influence on the novel more specifically. Though uncommon today, the term “conduct” was widely used by Victorian commentators seeking to identify what facets of erotic experience were most important to social life and the formation of individual character. Instead of parsing the pathologies of desire, as Michel Foucault would lead us to expect, commentators directed their attention to volitional—and often habitual—behaviors that took pleasing erotic sensations as their primary end. Such conduct transpired in all spaces of everyday life, but this project turns to a diverse set of archival sources to make the case that it was conduct at the theatre that held the greatest fascination. A mass culture of an exceptional magnitude, situated in discrete physical spaces, the Victorian commercial theatre provided ample opportunities for both fleeting and enduring encounters between people who weren’t married or even necessarily of the opposite sex. This dissertation shows how new varieties of sexual character emerged at the theatre, where they were either tacitly permitted or flamboyantly indulged: the imperious actress; the ardent female spectator; the cruising sodomite; and the female dandy.
Drawing on a breadth of archival research, "Eccentric Conduct" makes the case that just as the theatre affected the erotic habits of many Victorians, so did it influence the storytelling habits of many Victorian novels. Explicit depictions of performers and theatergoing have led many critics to characterize the Victorian novel as anti-theatrical, eschewing the fleshly and meretricious matter of live performance in favor of representing the superior qualities of privacy, domesticity and moral continence associated with the bourgeois home. This project counters this view by uncovering the subtler yet more pervasive influence theatre had on the characters, vocabulary, images and narrative devices of realist fiction. Novelists most often deployed theatrically-derived storytelling habits when seeking to represent pleasures inconsistent with the institution of patriarchal marriage. Instead of imitating the disciplinary conduct of the police or patriarch, to which the novel is often compared, novels by Eliot and Hardy sought to convey and thus promote the pleasures they also represented. In order to make theatre’s effect on the metalanguage of Victorian fiction intelligible, I reconstruct the conduct to which novelists elude by juxtaposing artifacts such as theatergoing diaries, scrapbooks, trial records and cabinet photographs alongside the “actress novel” genre, Middlemarch, Teleny, The Heavenly Twins, and Jude the Obscure.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Marcus, Sharon
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 6, 2019