Year of Publication

2015

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

College

Arts and Sciences

Department

English

First Advisor

Dr. Ellen Rosenman

Second Advisor

Dr. Jill Rappoport

Abstract

My dissertation examines how heroines in nineteenth-century British Literature manipulate conventional objects of feminine culture in ways which depart from uses associated with Victorian marriage plots. Rather than use fashionable objects to gain male attention or secure positions as wives or mothers, female characters deploy self-fashioning tactics to travel under the guise of unthreatening femininity, while skirting past thresholds of domestic space. Whereas recent Victorian literary and cultural criticism identifies female pleasure in the form of consumption and homosocial/erotic desire, my readings of Victorian fiction, from doll stories to the novels of Charlotte Brontë, Wilkie Collins, and Marie Corelli, consider that heroines find pleasure in deploying fashionable objects – such as dolls, clothes, cosmetics, and jewelry – which garner access to public space typically off limits for Victorian women. In the first chapter, girls use dolls to play in wilderness spaces, fostering female friendships. Muted dress provides a cloak of invisibility, allowing the heroine to participate in the pleasure of ocular economies in the second chapter. The third chapter features a female detective who uses cosmetics to disguise her infiltration of men’s private spaces in order to access private secrets. Finally, the project culminates with jewelry’s re-signification as female success in the publishing world.

Tracing how female characters in Victorian fiction use self-fashioning as a pathway, this study maps the safe travel heroines discover through wild landscapes, urban streets, and professional arenas. These spaces were often coded with sets of conditions for gendered interactions. Female characters’ proficient self-styling provides mobility through locations guarded by the voices of neighbors, friends, and family who attempt to keep them in line with Victorian gender conventions. Female characters derive an often unexplored pleasure: the secret joy of being where they should not and going against what they are told. In the novels I examine, female protagonists navigate prolific rules and advice about how to arrange and manage their appearances, not to aspire to paragons of Victorian beauty and womanhood but in order to achieve physical and geographic mobility outside domestic interiors.

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