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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Solid Air: Victorian Atmosphere and Female Character in British Fiction 1847-1891

  • Author(s): Pizzo, Justine Fontana
  • Advisor(s): Bristow, Joseph E
  • Grossman, Jonathan H
  • et al.

"Solid Air" argues that representations of the atmosphere in novels by Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, and Thomas Hardy transform the physical and psychological stability of female protagonists. My examination of Bleak House, Jane Eyre, Villette, The Return of the Native, and Tess of the D'Urbervilles participates in a recent turn in literary scholarship that focuses on physical atmospheres in British poetry and prose of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Whereas many of these studies adopt an ecocritical approach by looking back to literary engagements with what we now term the Anthropocene (the geological period defined by human influence), "Solid Air" examines the indelible imprint atmosphere leaves on literary representations of the human. My historical research on Victorian science--including physiological psychology, meteorology, and molecular physics--demonstrates that women in the mid-to-late nineteenth century were often understood in relation to the weather.

Current narrative theory tends to understand characters as physically delineated subjects. By contrast, I argue that the hazy environments in Victorian fiction emphasize the dissoluble coherence of the female body and its surprisingly omniscient knowledge. My examination of theories of hysteria, "periodicity" (the biological fluctuations thought to govern female subjectivity from puberty to childbirth and beyond), and women's limited energy reserves demonstrates that the close relationship between gender and climate science forms the basis of innovative--and often empowered--representations of the female self. The forms of solid air this project examines dissolve the distinction between in-here (character interiority) and out-there (atmosphere). This elusive, often opaque, characterization urges us to reconsider the transparent consciousness and embodied subjectivity critics often associate with the "round" or fully developed Victorian protagonist. Paradoxically, seemingly restrictive categories of scientific study allowed novelists to imagine a new diegetic subjectivity: one as diffuse as the air itself.

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