Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program

English and American Literature


English (en)

Date of Award

Summer 9-1-2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

William McKelvy


This dissertation investigates the lively interchange between Victorian literature, the science of language, and liberal politics. I argue that Victorian authors used language-science, the study of the origins and nature of human speech, as a powerful model for engaging the diminishing status of hereditary rule and the rise of popular sovereignty. Philologists and natural scientists presented a new understanding of language as a self-enclosed, evolutionary system. This autonomy of language, in turn, mirrored Victorian Britain's emerging liberal society, with its emphasis on self-governance and laissez-faire economics. While previous scholars have characterized Victorian language-science as depoliticized and reactionary, I show how works by Thomas Carlyle, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alfred Tennyson, and the lesser-known but fascinating Darwinian poet Mathilde Blind draw on language-science to explore the redistribution of political power in the age of reform.


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