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Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
In Queer Accounts, I uncover a set of closely related queer desires, some recognizably sexual and others curiously economic, in nineteenth-century Britain. As a new body of interdisciplinary research by scholars such as Mary Poovey, Catherine Gallagher, and Regenia Gagnier reveals, economists and novelists in the nineteenth century often engaged in the same imaginative work, defining and making visible changing social relations in an unpredictable market economy. The idealized figure of “Economic Man,” first depicted as colonialist adventurer in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and later emerging as the rational, self-interested, and upwardly mobile homo economicus of political economy, became central to the human sciences during the nineteenth century and endures as the authoritative model of capitalist progress. While Victorian novels often promoted the middle-class and implicitly heteronormative values of homo economicus, in Queer Accounts I highlight the queerness of the Victorian economy, the abnormality of mobility, partnership, and (in)security in popular fiction which contest the centrality of this economic myth in Victorian culture. Since Foucault’s History of Sexuality, scholars have cited the nineteenth century as a defining epoch when the categories of “heterosexuality” emerged and effaced more fluid forms of erotic desire. Queer Accounts enriches this history by exposing the common roots of economic and sexual desires which resist the imperatives of capitalist reproduction.
In Chapter One, I consider queer depictions of lower-middle-class financial professionals in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850), A Tale of Two Cities, (1859), and Our Mutual Friend (1864). Invoking Eve Sedgwick’s theory of homosexual panic, I show how the threat villains like Uriah Heep pose to the Victorian home embody broader domestic anxieties about the bank: the increasing need “economic man” has to entrust his money to the hands of others.
Chapter Two addresses the precarious economic position of women prior to the passage of the Married Women’s Property Acts in 1870 and 1882. In chapter Two, I contrast the conventional plot of upward social mobility in Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor (1857) to the double plot of bankruptcy and sudden windfall in Jane Eyre (1847). I argue that Brontë rewrites the plot of individual economic prosperity within a queer affective economy that incentivizes the redistribution of wealth.
In Chapter Three, I turn to the memoirs of the flamboyant “creole” widow-turned-businesswoman Mary Seacole, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857). In her promiscuous yet resolutely impersonal alliances with Americans, other Blacks, French soldiers, and the British public, Seacole not only survives but eventually profits from bankruptcy by fashioning herself as a munificent “friend” rather than subject of the British Empire.
In the final two chapters, I examine two queer economic subjects in the historical fiction of George Eliot: the widow and the miser. In Chapter Four, I show how young, wealthy widows in the major works of Eliot emerge as a new heroic type whose queer “life interest” disrupts violent patterns of patrilineal reproduction. In the final chapter, I consider portrayals of the miser in Dickens’s Christmas Carol (1843) and Eliot’s Silas Marner (1860). Drawing on theories of wealth accumulation in Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Marx, and Freud, I show how Eliot’s later-century portrayal of a disabled, working-class miser and his beloved adopted daughter articulates a queer sentimental economy in which generational bonds of kinship are reimagined as the accumulation rather than reproduction of value.
In the five chapters of Queer Accounts, I examine the queer instantiations of several forms of association — partnership, intimacy, and kinship — showing that their queerness is as lucrative as it is provocative. In doing so, I refute the assumption that heteronormativity was economically efficient in Victorian England and underscore the enduring power of fiction to contest dominant mythos of capitalist progress and profit.
Chair and Committee
Anca Parvulescu, William McKelvy, Joseph Loewenstein, Amber Musser
Dobbins, Margaret (Meg) Leigh, "Queer Accounts: Victorian Literature and Economic Deviance" (2015). Arts & Sciences Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 648.
Available for download on Sunday, December 15, 2115