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Disappearing Walls: Architecture and Literature in Victorian Britain


From Discipline and Punish and The Madwoman in the Attic to recent work on urbanism, display, and material culture, criticism has regularly cast nineteenth-century architecture not as a set of buildings but as an ideological metastructure. Seen primarily in terms of prisons, museums, and the newly gendered private home, this "grid of intelligibility" polices the boundaries not only of physical interaction but also of cultural values and modes of knowing. As my project argues, however, architecture in fact offered nineteenth-century theorists unique opportunities to broaden radically the parameters of aesthetic agency. A building is generally not built by a single person; it is almost always a corporate effort. At the same time, a building will often exist for long enough that it will decay or be repurposed. Long before literature asked "what is an author?" Victorian architecture theory asked: "who can be said to have made this?" Figures like John Ruskin, Owen Jones, and James Fergusson radicalize this question into what I call a redistribution of intention, an ethically charged recognition of the value of other makers. Reading novels by Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and theory and history by John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle, I show how authors use architecture to explore the deep kinship between textual and material production, and in doing so admit unsupervisable agencies--both human and natural--into their work.

As I demonstrate, Ruskin and other prominent theorists imagine architecture as a set of dynamic surfaces which are open to the marks not only of humble workmen but also of everyday users and natural processes. Seen from the perspective of his architectural writing, I argue, Ruskin's theories of literary and artistic vision locate the imaginative ground of literary representation not in unmarked nature but rather in a multiply authored object world. In the theory of the design reform movement and the daringly experimental architecture displays of the Sydenham Crystal Palace, I recover an understanding of creative work as embodied thought that opens itself up to transformative reconstruction and alteration over time. As Hardy struggles textually to embody architectural processes (in Jude the Obscure) and Dickens discovers utopian social possibilities in the failure of architectural planning (in Martin Chuzzlewit), I show how Victorian literature understands the work of the author as a participation, across time and space, in communal and material acts of making.

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