Historicizing performativity: Constructing identities in Victorian England
Stern, Rebecca F.
Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation draws upon performance theory and new historicism to read Victorian literature and culture. By fusing the gender consciousness and social constructionist agenda of the former with the rigorous dedication to historical specificity of the latter, I am able both to ground potentially amorphous theoretical assertions and, through readings of novels, nonfiction prose, and other historical documents, to comment upon the constructedness of what the Victorians fought to maintain as "natural" aspects of character. The focus on gender that defines so much work in performance theory is a prominent concern here, but it is not the organizing principle of the dissertation; rather, following the lead of recent feminist criticism, I explore masculinity and femininity within the contexts of other social categories such as class, work, sanity, and race. The first chapter locates Victorian antitheatricality within the context of industrial culture. Reading political tracts alongside conduct books, I attribute Victorian antipathies to visibly repetitive or rehearsed behavior to the monotonous actions of the machines that increasingly replaced human labor. The second chapter reads the Victorian fantasy of class transcendence against the fear of fraud, focusing on the conflicting pressures in narratives of upward mobility to reshape oneself to conform to a new class standing and yet to maintain a "genuine" self. The third chapter explores the performances that constituted professional identity and the tremendous latitude the Victorians allowed theatricality so long as "acting" was troped as "activity." The fourth chapter focuses on the demise of moral treatment (a form of therapy that sought to cure the mad by teaching them to behave sane), to examine sanity and shifting strategies for treating and explaining madness. My final chapter unsettles the stability of skin as a reliable determinant of racial identity, exploring the performative aspects that enabled white Victorians to seem racially invisible and the acts and attributes that risked that invisibility. The dissertation examines texts by many authors, including Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Thomas Carlyle, Wilkie Collins, Dinah Mulock Craik, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin, and Mrs. Henry Wood.
Cultural anthropology; English literature