Unrestrained Women and Decadent Old Aristocrats: the Nineteenth-Century Middle Class Struggle for Cultural Hegemony.
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
This dissertation examines three popular novels of the Victorian period: W. G. M. Reynolds's Wagner, the Wehr-wolf (1846-7), Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1862), and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). Each work was written during distinct decades of the nineteenth century when certain popular novels were under attack for rotting the minds of their readers, promoting vice, and subverting cultural standards. During the 1840s, when Reynolds's wrote Wagner, the Wehr-wolf , novels that were published in cheap penny weeklies created a sensation among mass readers. In the 1860s, when Braddon wrote Lady Audley's Secret, the sensation novel became popular with a middle-class reading audience. Stoker's Dracula was written during the 1890s, a time when popular decadent novels revealed a thirst for new passions and forbidden sensations. In studying these novels, I have found that a pattern of anxieties about class dominance emerges among the upper class and factions of the middle class. A struggle for cultural hegemony develops out of the discords between competing groups within the middle class, who view their middle-class identity either with or against the aristocracy. The tensions resulting from those middle-class groups who resisted aristocratic control and those who wanted to appropriate it surface, in fiction, through a female figure, who is associated with the aristocracy and also coded as crossing gender boundaries. Explicitly sexualized, the female figure transgresses her passive feminine role and, in the process, is designated as masculine. The importance of this study rests in the discovery that the popular novel under consideration in each of these three decades reveals a distinct struggle among middle-class factions for cultural hegemony. The widespread reaction to the sensation novels of the 1860s as stories about crime is a familiar, well-charted territory. Less familiar is how the sensation novel of the 1860s, its precursor---the serialized sensation novel of the 1840s---and its later forms written as decadent fiction represented an increasing struggle for cultural hegemony perpetuated by middle-class factions on the turf of gender transgression.
May, Ronald Hamilton, "Unrestrained Women and Decadent Old Aristocrats: the Nineteenth-Century Middle Class Struggle for Cultural Hegemony." (1999). LSU Historical Dissertations and Theses. 7110.