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The Organization of Organizations: Bureaucratic Administration and Domestic Comfort in the Victorian Sequence Novel


Victorian bureaucracy had its own brand of fiction. In this dissertation I argue that the long novel sequences of Anthony Trollope and Margaret Oliphant describe the development of modern systems of administrative and domestic organization. In mid-century England, writing about organization and administrative bureaucracy gained in importance in the wake of the Northcote-Trevelyan report as a cluster of sequence novels sprang up and explored the links between fiction and organization. By 1890, however, the sequence novel returned to obscurity as the art-object novel of Henry James began its ascent.

Sequence novels are novels connected in sequence. They contain hundreds of characters and chronicle social processes that persist for years. The dissertation treats them as single works whose disparate narratives provide a coherent engagement with organization. Sequence novels show that novels and social institutions alike manufacture both intimacy and organization.

The dissertation begins with Trollope’s Barsetshire novels and his descriptions of administrative ecologies—Church, civil service, legal system—and the people who inhabit them. From decisions, to the clerks and clerics who make them, and finally to the environments that house them, this chapter shows how individual decisions translate into the bureaucratic organization characteristic of large administrative institutions.

When translated into the domestic sphere, organization produces comfort. Oliphant’s Carlingford Chronicles popularized a modern form of domestic organization that requires women to direct their attentions toward producing comfort. In this form of organization, women work in the medium of form (sewing and socializing, redecorating and relating, according to pattern) and produce a domestic world that is not so much a haven from the official world as a copy of it.

From novelistic worlds replete with institutions, the final chapter turns away from official organization and the sprawling sequence novel to the individual novel with the individual at its center. Henry James’s The Tragic Muse sketches a late-Victorian world of “little systems,” constituted by and around the individual. This is a world without administrative decision, without comfort, but not therefore without organization. James substitutes for the ubiquitous organization of Trollope and Oliphant a ubiquitous network of personal interactions and individuals deciding.

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