Business and Belongingness: How the Female Entrepreneur Revised the Victorian Canon
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Business and Belongingness: How the Female Entrepreneur Revised the Victorian Canon

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Recent work by economic historians illustrates that up to thirty percent of Victorian businesses were owned by women. In fact, this new research complicates the separate spheres theory that argues that the nineteenth-century saw a retreat of middle-class women into the domestic sphere. Although literary scholars of the Victorian period have long been interested in the relationship between economics, gender, and literary texts, the role that female entrepreneurship plays within this discourse has still to be accounted for. This project attempts to fill this lacuna by reading female businessowners along the lines of an oxymoron. Although women of business were active participants in the market economy, they also had to engage with a discourse of domesticity that attempted to discursively relegate them to the economic margins. Building on a critical tradition that investigates economic and literary representations as homologous discourses, this project reads this representational relegation from the marketplace as a literary problem. In fact, accounts of female businessowners in Victorian fiction are far and far between despite the fact that Victorian writers were highly concerned with commenting on and engaging with economic problems. Thus, this dissertation turns to the absent voices of female entrepreneurs---by focusing on personal accounts, memoirs, biographical writings, journalistic work, and fiction---to make visible the invisibility of women of business both in the marketplace and in the literary mainstream. “Business and Belongingness” begins with a reading of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford that argues that the unmarried, elderly businesswomen of Cranford become profit-making storytellers who challenge the economic and the narrative structures that attempt to marginalize them. The dissertation then turns to the writings of historical businesswomen. Mary Seacole’s food business in her Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands draws on the close alliance between consumerism and imperialism and writes back against fictional, and non-fictional portrayals of Caribbean women as pathological eaters. In Autobiography of a Shirtmaker, Edith Simcox’ desire of bringing about economic reform through her shirtmaking business is intimately connected with her attempt to make visible queer individuals’ lived experiences in the literary mainstream. The aim of “Business and Belongingness” is not only to underscore how the economic and literary relegation of women of business are intimately intertwined via a shared representational logic. In addition to this, I endeavor to elucidate how the businesswoman becomes a literary type whose resistance to marginalizing economic and literary structures allows literary scholars to confront anew ellipses, gaps and erasures in Victorian texts, texts that, today, are widely regarded as canonical.

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This item is under embargo until May 25, 2027.