Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
My dissertation tracks the production of "common sense" about female sexuality and psychology in nineteenth-century sensational British literature. I move from the sensation novel's heyday, represented by Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone (1868) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1862), through the fin-de-siècle Gothic literary revival with Bram Stoker's Dracula(1895), and conclude with a reading of the representation of aberrant female sexuality in the emergent science of nineteenth-century sexology. For Victorian readers, few things could have seemed further removed from sensation literature--from lurid crime novels to sordid news stories to sexualized science--than common sense. Yet, my project illustrates the role of sensational literature in provoking the dark millennial fantasies that passed as common sense and often animated theories of femininity expressed in late-Victorian science.
Common sense retains its rhetorical force through the assumption that its premises arise naturally and apply universally. But if we take a historical view, a troubling pattern emerges: common sense has often worked to preserve reactionary views of femininity. For example, in the nineteenth century, common sense led medical professionals to the belief that a woman's reproductive system left her constitutionally more susceptible to "hysteria."
define common sense as the product of the frequent iteration of a particular train of associative logic that results in the naturalization and legitimation of claims about reality, even if those claims are both sensationalized and arbitrary. The rhetorical force of common sense requires the perpetual obscuration of its origins. The elusive and frustrating quality of common sense as a cognitive category derives from its ability, in Stuart Hall's words, to "represent itself as the 'traditional wisdom or truth of the ages,'
[when] in fact, it is deeply a product of history, 'part of the historical process'" ("Gramsci's Relevance" 431). Hall describes this type of associative relationship between disparate figures often exemplified in the logic of common sense as "an articulation." What Hall refers to as an "articulation" might also be called, when viewed through the lens of literary theory, a "metonymic chain," wherein the literal term for one thing is applied to another with which it becomes linked, articulated. Both terms—articulation and metonymic chain—effectively describe the illusion of necessary correspondence in mere arbitrary association.
My translation of this cultural phenomenon into the framework of literary analysis allows for a precise description of the rhetorical transformations involved in conjuring common sense. With frequent iteration, metonymic association may appear to be based on some more substantial similarity—not circumstantial, but necessary; not the product of sensationalism, but the inevitable conclusion derived from and constituting common sense. Common sense regarding female sexuality has frequently been preserved through sensationalism; but paradoxically, sensationalism is often most effective when its characteristic paranoia seems somehow self-evidently justified, even rational. In other words, sensationalism works best to consolidate the paranoid patterns of associative logic informing the nineteenth-century figuration of femininity when it appears not to be working at all—when sensationalism takes on the weight of common sense.
common sense, femininity, nineteenth-century literature, sensation novel, sexology, Victorian literature
vi, 240 pages
Includes bibliographical references (pages 226-240).
Copyright 2012 Elisabeth Ann Shane