Communities of Place: Making Regions in the Victorian Novel
Michie, Helena; Patten, Robert L.
Doctor of Philosophy
Mid-way through George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the heroine of the novel develops a plan to move from her country estate in England’s Midlands to the northern industrial county of Yorkshire, where she intends to found a model factory town. Dorothea Brooke’s utopian fantasy of class relations, ultimately abandoned, hints at the broader regional and geospatial discourse at work in this canonical Victorian novel, but is as equally ignored by critics as by other characters in Eliot’s realist masterpiece. In Communities of Place, I explore a new current of scholarship in Victorian studies by examining the role that England’s historic and geographic regions played in the development of the novel. Scholars of British literature and history have long argued that Victorian national and cultural identity was largely forged and promulgated from England’s urban centers. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the center became synonymous with London and, in the national metropolitan imagination, counties outside of London seemingly became homogenized into peripheral, anti-modern spaces. The critical tradition reinforces this historical narrative by arguing that the rise of nationalism precludes the development of regionalism. Thus, theorists of British nationalism have glossed over England’s intranational identity and have directed attention beyond England’s borders, to France or Scotland, to analyze national identity within Great Britain as a whole. Scholars of intra-English culture, meanwhile, often narrowly focused on county histories and the working classes in isolation. Both types of studies effectively argue that the English middle class, and the middle-class Victorian novel, lack regional affiliation; as Raymond Williams argues, middle-class Victorians were “external” to regional life. With Communities of Place, I join a scholarly conversation that offers an alternative to these scholarly cul-de-sacs: a critically engaged and historically responsive account of English regionalism. My project demonstrates how the development of distinctive English regional cultures paralleled, and occasionally destabilized, the formation of English national identity in the Victorian period. Central to this project is my assertion that the English upper and middle classes, like the working classes, were in part defined by their regional affiliations. Communities of Place, then, offers a historically specific understanding of regionalism as an important structuring framework for the social, geographic, and environmental relations in post-Romantic English literature, by drawing attention to four formulations of English regionalism: the early-Victorian defenses of industrial Northern Englishness, mid-Victorian regional conceptions of mixed rural and factory spaces, the repurposing of non-industrial landscapes for leisure, and the late-century return to the materiality of countryside, now emptied of Romantic naturalism. In each chapter I study geographically-specific cultural regions, from Elizabeth Gaskell’s industrial Lancashire to Thomas Hardy’s rural Wessex, in order to explore more generally how local class relations, topography, and recreational activities helped to shape discrete notions of Englishness outside of London. This methodology offers a productive alternative to center/peripheral models for understanding relations within England. By focusing on the depiction of regional responses to topics of national discussion, ranging from industrialism to the rise of consumer culture, I show how these issues were negotiated by the middle classes Victorian literature. These responses influence contemporary discussions about regional authority over landscape policy, the cultural status of the vernacular, and the preservation of green spaces in the urban nation.