Spectacularly Conceived: Sexual Violence and Burdened Motherhood in Nineteenth-Century British Literature Public Deposited

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  • March 20, 2019
  • Thierauf, Doreen
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • This dissertation responds to the traditional scholarly assumption that near universal censorship prevented discussion of sexual assault and pregnancy in nineteenth-century British literature. I argue that these issues are not only at the heart of Mary Prince’s slave narrative The History of Mary Prince (1831), Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s verse novel Aurora Leigh (1856) and her slave poems, as well as George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871) and Daniel Deronda (1876), but that women’s reproduction is represented in remarkably similar ways in each of these texts. Elite women writers staged abused, suffering, or pregnant bodies in spectacular and often exploitative ways, utilizing a mode of representation that derived from sentimental genres of the late eighteenth century. Reading these women-authored texts in the context of abolitionist, medical, and legal literature, I show that the creation of female writers’ authority in the Victorian literary marketplace was intimately tied to the rise of professional discourses, and that both processes depended on the prurient display of non-elite women’s bodies in distress. I conclude that female Victorian novelists and poets, echoing male professionals, accepted the notion that the public display of women’s sexuality threatened the institutional stability of marriage, procreative norms, and cultural reproduction. Spectacular displays of women’s sexuality were strongly associated with working-class femininity, and writers’ depiction of women’s reproductive troubles supported a fundamentally conservative political message. My argument thus complicates previous scholars’ understanding of nominally progressive nineteenth-century writings. I demonstrate that rhetorical strategies marked by sentimental appeal, professional detachment, and half-concealed eroticism allowed elite women writers to position themselves as major spokespersons for cultural reform. These strategies ultimately helped cement the economically dependent status quo of female working-class and colonial subjects in Victorian Britain.
Date of publication
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Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Stern, Kimberly
  • Salvaggio, Ruth
  • Wiegman, Robyn
  • Coriale, Danielle
  • Taylor, Beverly
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2017

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