Rereading Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Reading Cultures

Peters, Nicole. Rereading Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Reading Cultures. 2019. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

This dissertation examines how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century reading cultures are reflected in contemporary academic and popular trends and ways of reading. I argue that we re conceive how literary value is arbitrarily structured by ideological formations of power. Like twenty-first-century literary scholars, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century readers were very much interested in the relationship between texts and their readers. By historicizing eighteenth- and nineteenth-century discussions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ reading practices, and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ genres, it becomes clear how ambiguous these categories still remain. Ultimately, my dissertation tracks ideological trends in the history of reading the novel, generating a discussion that resists traditionally linear narratives about taste and value production across historical reading cultures.

Chapter One examines scenes of reading in novels from the mid-eighteenth century and early nineteenth century in order to track how popular ‘early’ novelists distinguish between ethical and affective frameworks in conversations of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ reading. Tracing these distinctions demonstrates how a problematically gendered lens of literary taste informs twentieth- and twenty-first century discussions about professional and recreational reading binaries. Chapter Two uses Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856) to argue that Barrett Browning offers a complex critique of these gendered reading practices by blurring the lines between genres and ways of reading. While Chapter Two analyzes Aurora Leigh’s hermeneutics of genre, Chapter Three looks at the text’s long and complex reception history. Comparing nineteenth-century critiques of the text to twentieth- and twenty-first century critiques shows that while Aurora Leigh’s literary value has always been framed through discussions of genre, genre functions in fundamentally different (and often contrasting) ways throughout the text’s afterlife. Chapter Four examines Jane Austen’s famously complex and tension-filled reception history to demonstrate how her fandom challenges the boundaries between emotionally absorptive styles of reading and more conventionally academic styles of reading. Finally, Chapter Five examines how contemporary marketing campaigns and Neo Victorian novels have worked to reclaim Victorian texts for young adults while allowing contemporary readers to mix modern social, political, and cultural tastes with retellings of documented nineteenth-century events, characters, and movements. By examining a sampling of popular young adult texts, this chapter demonstrates how Neo-Victorian texts have altered the way contemporary readers engage with nineteenth-century novels in a way that both anticipates and responds to generic malleability.

Rather than focusing on a single period of time or a single set of texts, this dissertation weaves lines of connection and reflection between the reading cultures of today and those of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Questions about how we define ‘literary’ taste and value are just as pressing today as they were over two centuries ago. Analyzing the anxieties and fears of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary cultures ultimately helps to shed light on our own.

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