In Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England, Mary Poovey asserts that certain issues regarding women’s position in Victorian society constituted a “problem,” because they “had the potential to expose the artificiality of the binary logic that governed the Victorian symbolic economy.” My dissertation explores literary representations of one such “problem” – the presence of women in the urban environment and their changing roles in relation to publicity at the end of the nineteenth century. By this time, the conditions of female mobility in the modern metropolis had been radically altered, as an unprecedented number of women (including middle-class women) were making an appearance in different public spaces. Women’s ‘proper’ place, perceived as natural according to the ideology of domesticity (a notion that was crucial not only to the institutional practices underlying the model of separate spheres, but also central to the nineteenth-century literary imagination), got increasingly contested through women’s conspicuousness in non-domestic places and roles. In my dissertation, I am concerned with the ways in which the interest in and anxiety about women in public came to be negotiated through literary representations. The fictional texts I investigate indicate a widespread concern with new forms of female mobility, and with women who in various ways have stepped out of their bounded roles and ascribed places.
Further, the aim of the dissertation is to demonstrate the need for nuanced readings of the ‘woman question’ in late-Victorian literature, and to argue that fictional negotiations are far less schematic than a number of previous studies have suggested. Some readings have conceptualized the city as an altogether negative or even dangerous environment for women, while others have claimed that representations of women in public signal the emergence of an “active, autonomous figure and a modern woman comfortable and knowledgeable in a female-dominated urban environment” (Deborah Parsons: Streetwalking the Metropolis). The dissertation slightly dissents from the debates that either posit women as victims of a hostile public environment, or read these figures through the theoretical trope of the independent flâneuse. Instead, it argues that fictional representations are far more ambiguous: they represent new ‘types’ of femininity, but at the same time are driven by an uneasiness with women’s changing roles and appearances in various spaces: fears about women’s sexuality and their loss of ‘respectability,’ and anxieties about the dissolution of gender relations and the blurring of class boundaries. As women appear on the (literal as well as metaphorical) stage of publicity, the novels I read exhibit the double-edged potential of their status as performers, spectacles and women on display: a risk of vulnerability and loss of agency, as well as an implicit disruptive force, and a possible danger to the fantasy of the ordered city and separate spheres.