For love of countryside : politics, rural England, and the mid-victorian novel.
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My thesis argues that the rural setting of provincial England depicted in popular Victorian novels reflects corresponding political changes introduced by Parliamentary acts, such as the Reform Bills of 1832 and 1867. While there is an existing body of criticism on the rural English setting in Victorian fiction, critics generally have overlooked how these settings staged the rapid political and social changes that came with the rise of industrialism and the explosive growth in population. The Reform Bills proposed the redistribution of Parliamentary seats to underrepresented English counties, prompting questions regarding who was qualified to vote and who was not. Growing industrial towns like Manchester and Birmingham were given more seats, while smaller counties were deemed “rotten boroughs” and allocated fewer seats. Quite abruptly, geography and population mattered in a way they had not mattered before.As a result, authors and readers alike were attuned to the unprecedented relevance of location within the novel. Understanding the historical significance of setting in Victorian provincial novels allows us to read them not as works nostalgic for a simpler pre- Industrial era, but rather as literary creations that shed light on the shifting socio-political structures of rural England. In order to register the impact of these shifts, novelists experimented with different forms in genre and narrative: Eliot, for instance, embeds her third-person omniscient narrator among the townspeople of rural Middlemarch, while Gaskell utilizes the literary sketch to challenge the portrayal of the rural as timeless. To examine the complexity of the relationship between form and politics, I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Anthony Trollope’s Small House at Allington, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford alongside contemporary reactions to Parliamentary Acts, supplemented by theorists such as Terry Eagleton and Amanpal Garcha.
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