Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
In nineteenth-century Britain, the average person's mind was an anthology containing snatches of poetry, Latin verb conjugations, Bible verses, folk songs, miscellaneous facts, and the catechism. Because secular and religious education emphasized learning by rote, students' minds were stocked with information and quotations that originated in other texts, which is reflected in characters who repeat those bits and pieces in the period's literature. My dissertation investigates concepts of personal and national identity in Victorian literature and culture, particularly through the understudied phenomenon of rote memory. George Eliot's Maggie Tulliver, for example, quotes Thomas à Kempis's Imitation of Christ to console herself in the face of tragedy, and Lewis Carroll's Alice attempts to recite didactic schoolroom poems in her efforts to distinguish herself from her less intelligent friends. These moments of memorization--although at first appearing merely to reflect what texts were consumed and recited in nineteenth-century England--in reality suggest much more. I argue that memorization remained centrally connected to nineteenth-century conceptions of identity: people are what they remember, even if those memories do not relate to their own lives, but instead to the information stocked in their minds. My readings of Mary Shelley's Matilda and George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss demonstrate rote learning's potential to erode a young woman's personal and religious identity. Instead of committing an act of powerful "poaching," as Michel de Certeau proposes, a memorizer often submits to the text's "strange invasion," as George Poulet suggests. My chapters centered on Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and R.M. Ballantyne's Jarwin and Cuffy, however, locate possibilities for gaining critical thinking skills and forming cross-cultural relationships through a person's response to quoted texts. By examining the significance of memorization in nineteenth-century novels, we gain new understandings of the Victorian period, ranging from the minutiae of everyday routines to the complexity of entire belief systems. A seemingly straightforward moment, such as a character reciting a line or two of poetry, can lead to interdisciplinary insights about forms of reading, functions of memory, ideas about gender, beliefs about religion, and methods of imperialism. As my dissertation demonstrates, nineteenth-century mental anthologies give twenty-first-century readers a veritable index to the cultural past.
Copyright 2010 Joanne Nystrom Janssen