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Victorian fantasy literature and the politics of canon-making

Karen Ann Michalson, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation examines the non-literary and non-aesthetic reasons underlying the bias in favor of realism in the formation of the traditional literary canon of nineteenth-century British fiction. Since English literature first became a recognized academic discipline in Great Britain in the 1870s and '80s, the study of fiction has been (with few exceptions) a study of realistic fiction. College survey courses in the period usually teach W. M. Thackeray through Thomas Hardy, but almost never make excursions into the fantasy fiction of Victorians like George MacDonald or Charles Kingsley.^ My thesis is that this exclusion can best be explained by examining the role of the Anglican Church as well as that of Non-Conformist or Dissenting evangelical sects in the educational institutions of nineteenth-century Britain in the first half of the century, and by examining the function that the academic study of English literature played in British imperialist ideology in the latter part of the century. Both Church and Empire needed a canon of realism to promote their own brand of conservative ideology, although each tended to define realism differently. Victorian fantasy writers often targeted Church doctrine or imperial dogma for especially satirical treatment, thus insuring their own exclusion from the universities which were run by the Church and operated to supply patriotic administrators to the Empire. My study examines in detail the ecclesiastical and political context of educational philosophy and how this context affected reading curriculum and ultimately, the canon.^ My study also examines in detail the lives and historical situations of five Victorian fantasy writers: John Ruskin, George MacDonald, Charles Kingsley, Henry Rider Haggard, and Rudyard Kipling. Ruskin, MacDonald and Kingsley used fantasy as a means of attacking various branches of organized Christianity. Haggard and Kipling used fantasy as a means of attacking various aspects of popular imperial rhetoric. Throughout the dissertation, I situate the writers' novels within their historical contexts to show why fantasy fiction has traditionally been ignored or denigrated by academic critics. ^

Subject Area

Religious history|European history|English literature

Recommended Citation

Michalson, Karen Ann, "Victorian fantasy literature and the politics of canon-making" (1990). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9101645.