Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Boos, Florence S
First Committee Member
Second Committee Member
Third Committee Member
Fourth Committee Member
Cox, Jeffrey L
My dissertation begins with the central crisis of Jane Eyre, in which Jane flees Thornfield Hall after her failed marriage, is unable to find work, and almost dies of exposure and starvation on the moors. She finds herself asking "What was I to do? Where to go? Oh, intolerable questions, when I could do nothing and go nowhere!" I suggest that this passage, and others that echo it in Villette and works by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and George Eliot can be read in terms of early Victorian anxieties over middle-class women's inability to support themselves should they need to. Most literary criticism on women and work focuses on the end of the century, which saw an explosion of the topic in public debate and literature of the time; in my work, I explore how these discussions and anxieties about women's work were developing much earlier than is usually discussed. While the fin-de-siècle figure of the New Woman characteristically moves through urban landscapes in ways that emphasize her independence (alone, on bicycles, on buses, to and from places of work and her own domicile), earlier middle-class Victorian women walk out of domestic spaces that are not their own, and any brief sense of freedom is swiftly followed by a sense of desperation or need. These women wander through economic landscapes in ways that point to their profound state of dependence and their inability to support themselves. Given that women are still, today, the first economic victims of a recession, I am interested in tracing how women writers started responding to this vulnerability almost as soon as it became visible with the establishment of an industrial economy and the rise of the middle class in early- and mid-Victorian England.
While some extant criticism examines Victorian gender and economics in literature on a text-by-text basis, I propose a comprehensive model with four modes for understanding how woman move through economic and physical landscapes in Victorian fiction: 1) in a mode of desperation that points to a fundamental problem with middle-class women's vulnerable economic position (Bronte's Jane Eyre and Villette); 2) in a mode of learning to better understand their limited but relative privilege compared to working-class women (Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh); 3) in a problematized mode of successful self-reinvention, prompted by economic aspirations, that poses a danger to conventional social hierarchy and therefore marks the woman as errant or evil (sensation fiction, Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret and Aurora Floyd); and 4) in a mode of self-revelation in which a woman comes to realize how her own perpetual state of dependence has affected her choices (Eliot's Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch). Desperation, comprehension, problematic self-invention, revelation: Victorian women's wanderings consistently point to, through the movement of the woman's body, the ways that the woman is an economic subject, perhaps before she is anything else.
Charlotte Bronte, Class, Economics, Gender, Literature, Wandering
vii, 230 pages
Includes bibliographical references (pages 218-230).
Copyright © 2014 Katherine Frances Montgomery
Montgomery, Katherine Frances. ""Drear flight and homeless wandering": gender, economics, and crises of identity in mid-Victorian women's fiction." PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 2014.