The Regency novel and the British constitution: Austen, Brunton, Shelley, and the culture of Romantic decline Public Deposited

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  • March 22, 2019
  • Marsh, Sarah Elizabeth
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • During the Regency period (1811-1820), Britons were faced at home with daunting political problems: a scandal-plagued royal family; ongoing war with France; a weak postwar economy; a complicated and relatively new union of Scotland with England and Wales; and an enormous new empire abroad that few understood and none knew how to manage. As a hedge against this apparent national decline, Britons made frequent recourse to an ideal of national cohesion they called the British constitution: in medicine, the constitution (or health) of British bodies; in domestic matters, the constitution of the British family; in science, the constitution of the British atmosphere and landscape; in politics, the constitution of the British polity out of the English, the Welsh, and the Scottish; in government, the constitutional monarchy comprising the House of Lords, the House of Commons, and the king; in jurisprudence, the body of parliamentary law known as the British Constitution. Constitution was for Britons a multivalent and extremely powerful term that emphasized the interrelatedness of political, legal, social, environmental, and medical understandings of lived experience. And yet, as the nineteenth century moved into its second decade, Britons were nevertheless convinced that theirs was a national constitution on the verge of ruin. This dissertation assesses the interaction of British constitutions--physiological, legal, and national--with genre in the Regency-era novels of Jane Austen, Mary Brunton, and Mary Shelley. These novels are no exception to the larger trend of Regency-era declinism; what makes these women's fictive appraisals of Britain's ruin so remarkable is how they use gender and genre categories to unsettle the seemingly stable idea of a British constitution. The novel was primed for this political work because it was the principal conduit through which Britons indulged their obsession with constitutional decline: eighteenth-century sentimental and gothic fictions almost universally feature as a plotline the constitutional ruin of heroines. In their Regency-era novels, Austen, Brunton, and Shelley seized upon this older tradition to level its sexual double standard: constitutional decline, they insist, inheres not in women's bodies (as the sentimental and gothic traditions held), but in a social order--and a literary tradition--that maintained women and other disenfranchised groups in positions of precarious constitutional legitimacy. Taken together, the Regency-era novels of Austen, Brunton, and Shelley demonstrate that the British constitution--that old ideal of national cohesion--might be nothing more (and certainly nothing less) than Britain's greatest national fiction.
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  • Moskal, Jeanne
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Graduation year
  • 2013

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