Date of Award

2-23-2018

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English, General Literature, and Rhetoric

Abstract

This study examines how British novels produced during the long nineteenth century, the period from 1750 to 1919, represent thetenuous connection of women to property and place. A paradox of the era was that while women tended to be relegated to theconfines of the domestic realm as daughters, sisters, wives, or widows, it was also a home that they could not or did not own, and in which their continued residence was dependent upon the largesse of others, making them vulnerable to displacement. Thedichotomy between home and homelessness creates the dynamic tension that drives many plots of the long nineteenth century, precipitating the movements of dispossessed female characters who must maneuver through a complex topology of geography, laws, and social practices in search of new homes, families, or communities. Since the fictional world of the novel is meant to provide a landscape that is recognizable and realistic, this study looks at how laws and related constructs are key mechanisms for achieving mimesis. I suggest that fictions of the long nineteenth century rely on the law to reveal both the dominant ideology as well as its contestation, seamlessly enfolding laws and legal constructs into the fabric of those plots reliant for their development on thedisconnection of women from land, ownership, and occupancy rights.

Another goal of this study is to expand both the timeline typically employed when critically assessing narratives predicated on some form of female displacement, as well as broadening the constellation of laws and socio-legal practices that influenced the content of plots predicated on contested interests in land and wealth. Rather than concentrating only on the mid-Victorian period and theconstraints of coverture on married women’s rights of ownership as many studies do, I suggest that a much longer chronology of laws and practices must be considered in understanding the long sweep of evolving laws and practices affecting women’s rights of property regardless of marital status that filtered into the plots of contemporary fictions. I begin in the mid-eighteenth century and expand into the first decades of the twentieth century as the natural termination point for novels of female displacement. In addition to those common law practices generally associated with marriage such as coverture, or inheritance practices that preference themale line such as primogeniture, including the 1753 Marriage Act, the practice of Parliamentary Enclosure, the Inheritance Act of 1833, the several Asylum and Madhouse Acts enacted in this period, and the Reform Act of 1832, among other laws whose influence on the shape of fictions is palpable within plots or sub-plots that mirror the preference for the preservation of landed interests while simultaneously destabilizing women’s rights in property and place.

I begin with Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800) and its contestation of masculine historicity and its exclusion of women from the national narrative as symbolic of their physical exclusion from rights in the eponymous castle that Edgeworth suggests is not only a function of the uncertain political climate, but of the imposition of English laws and practices. Straddling the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and written on the eve of Anglo-Irish Union, this short novel demonstrates how uncertain temporal and political boundaries offer opportunities that women can use to gain some wealth or property within a transforming Ireland. Eschewing themarriage plot formula, Edgeworth demonstrates how a combination of ancient Irish customs and the manipulation of English laws and practices can provide women with material benefits, even if they cannot own or remain at the titular property. Chapter three examines Jane Austen’s Juvenilia and its bold assault on the inheritance practices that favored men and the mercenary marriages facilitated by Hardwicke’s Act of 1753. Often discounted in Austen’s canon as merely preliminary to her development as a writer, I suggest that because the juvenilia was not intended for publication, it provides uncensored access to one of Austen’s chief concerns, the displacement and disinheritance of women, including women’s omission from masculine historicity. The significance of these early works is that Austen both returns to them for characters, plots and language in her mature novels, but also that the concerns she first articulates in her juvenile writings about women’s legal place in English society remained constant and continued to inform her mature novels. Chapter four focuses on Austen’s mature novels, and suggests that the marriage plot paradigm is merely the cover story Austen uses to question marriage and inheritance practices that displaced women, achieved by structuring her plots like modern exile narratives using spatial tropes that subvert the laws and practices that precipitate women’s displacement. (Abstract shortened by ProQuest.)

Available for download on Saturday, February 23, 2019

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