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Novel Buildings: Architectural and Narrative Form in Victorian Fiction

This dissertation, “Novel Buildings: Architectural and Narrative Form in Victorian Fiction,” offers an interdisciplinary study of the relationship between the economic and social histories of built space and the Victorian literary imagination. At its most fundamental level, it claims that the spaces we inhabit shape the stories we tell. Reading Victorian literature through the architectural archive of the period, it argues that the nineteenth century’s rapidly evolving built environment resulted in a new set of narrative possibilities and laid the foundations for authorial innovations in genre, style, and form. Organized taxonomically around four architectural types reinvented in the nineteenth century—courthouses, hotels, theaters, and hospitals—my work examines novels that co-opt realism’s thick descriptions of these spaces for political and aesthetic ends. Drawing upon contemporary approaches to literary studies, including affect studies and environmental studies, these readings are connected by a consideration of the performative and intersubjective nature of public space. Parallel to my project’s critical engagement with material culture, human geography, and spatial embodiment is its attentiveness to the imbrication of literary and physical forms, thus taking up Victorian studies’ recent turn to new formalisms and its efforts at grounding the aesthetic within the everyday. My dissertation’s historical arc extends from the end of the eighteenth century through the end of the nineteenth, and its geographic trajectory traces a course from England’s agricultural and manufacturing provinces, through its urban metropole, to its continental and colonial outposts. Building upon previous literary studies of domestic, carceral, and commercial architecture, my project expands the critical archive to include a set of relatively understudied public spaces whose cultural significance remains profound even today. Moreover, it contributes to Victorian studies’—and literary studies’ in general—recent reinvestment in formalism(s) as it demonstrates the relationship between the various, intersecting, forms that govern and compose built environments, social relations, and literature. Beyond the portability of my methodology to additional architectural forms and/or other literary fields, my project also provides new humanistic avenues of inquiry in the study of urban development and it shifts the ways in which we read and understand representations of space.
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