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Title page for ETD etd-07172015-100012

Type of Document Dissertation
Author Fang, Dan
URN etd-07172015-100012
Title Magical Objects in Victorian Literature: Enchantment, Narrative Imagination, and the Power of Things
Degree PhD
Department English
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Jay Clayton Committee Co-Chair
Rachel Teukolsky Committee Co-Chair
Carolyn Dever Committee Member
Elaine Freedgood Committee Member
Jonathan Lamb Committee Member
  • victorian literature
  • victorian culture
  • thing theory
Date of Defense 2015-06-02
Availability unrestricted
This dissertation examines the representation of magical objects in Victorian literature. The Victorian period is often characterized as a time of increased secularity. Scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists in the period viewed Britain as a progressive culture, set apart from the so-called “primitive” cultures outside of Europe that still held animistic beliefs about the souls of objects. This dissertation argues that, on the contrary, magical objects pervaded Victorian culture not only as an integral part of the Victorian imagination but also as a foundational aspect of fiction writing.

Surveying a variety of genres within and beyond fiction, I present two ideas about magical objects that seem counterintuitive to standard representations of nineteenth-century England. First, magical objects are intertextual vehicles that connect unlikely genres of writing. The speaking pens, wish-granting lamps, living dolls, cursed diamonds, and occult mirrors that I study arise out of folklore, both exotic and natively British. They are subsequently alluded to in various texts, including nonfictional works such as Edwin Streeter’s histories of diamonds, Oliver Wendell Holmes’s writings on photography, and David Brewster’s scientific treatises. Their presence in these nonfictional works are far from incongruous; rather, they form some of the most easily accessible cultural touchstones for both writer and reader.

Second, I argue that, within fictional genres, especially the realist novel, magical objects are mobilized to reflect the process of writing. Each of the canonical authors I examine uses magical objects to negotiate a delicate balance between mimetic realism and fantastical imagination. Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Wilkie Collins, and George Eliot, while composing slightly different iterations of the realist novel, have made magical objects the governing structure of their books: the animated doll lays out the parameters for characters’ behaviors; the cursed diamond activates plots of adventure and detection; and the magic mirror acts as a portal into the imagined world of the novel. I conclude that the realist novel, though it may appear to eschew the fantasy of animated and agentive things, in fact relies on these things for its world-building.

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