Toxic ecologies: contamination and transgression in Victorian fiction, 1851-1900
MetadataShow full item record
In mid-to-late Victorian fiction, pollution and waste drip, ooze, and seep through the built environment, threatening the boundaries between public and private, rich and poor, healthy and ill. Refuse and dirt held a paradoxical place in nineteenth-century society, as matter that was economically valuable, yet had the capacity to contaminate. My dissertation moves from this tension to ask three questions: What roles did dirt and waste play in critiques of capitalism? How did industrial and organic pollution shape the way that the Victorians imagined the natural world in the latter half of the nineteenth century? And how did changing views of the environment transform what constituted a “natural” social order? The project focuses on four Victorian authors fascinated by pollution and waste – Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, and Richard Jefferies – and contextualizes their work in a broader discourse on waste by such figures as John Ruskin, John Stuart Mill, Henry Mayhew, and Charles Darwin. For the Victorians, questions of nature and pollution were not only environmental or scientific. They also had serious implications for the way that society was structured. I argue that for some nineteenth-century writers, visions of strange, contaminated environments offered novel versions of the “natural” order, which in turn allowed them to depict alternative social orders that emphasized stewardship and care while challenging the logic of industrial capitalism. Scholars of the Victorian period have largely discussed depictions of filth in the context of England’s public health movement of the 1840s, identifying links between the containment of dirt and social boundaries. My dissertation builds on this work by arguing that pollution undermined Victorian efforts to distinguish the natural from the unnatural, enabling writers to portray different “natural” models of social, political, and economic organization. Taken together, the works of Mayhew, Braddon, Dickens, Browning, and Jefferies reflect a strain of Victorian thought that saw dirt and waste as central to the development of a just and compassionate social order. Rather than expressing an unmitigated disgust for contaminated spaces, these writers move beyond the nineteenth-century desire for the containment of filth to inscribe otherwise monstrous spaces with possibility.