Wayward Tastes: Women's Judgment and Pleasure in British Novels and Culture, 1800-1865

Mapp, Rennie, Doctor of Philosophy, University of Virginia
Chase Levenson, Karen, Department of English, University of Virginia
Levenson, Michael, Department of English, University of Virginia

I investigate the development of taste as an aesthetic faculty in young women in novels by Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell. In chapters on Northanger Abbey, Jane Eyre and Wives and Daughters, I explore how women's taste takes part not only in the conservative cultural work of maintaining and enforcing status but also in the potentially powerful and disruptive work of artistic production.

Women's specialization in the exercise of taste is often represented in depictions of a woman choosing a thing, such as clothing or a book. She senses, chooses, and judges the object, weighing its place in her cultural context. Through these portrayals, I argue, these novels explore the aesthetic potential of women's proficiency in culturally constructed conceptions of good taste. Moreover, the exercise of taste by women within these novels becomes a trope for the expertise of the novelist herself, who, like her heroine, must grapple with the tension between obligations of conventional taste on one hand and opportunities for aesthetic innovation and pleasure offered by her own wayward taste, on the other.

In my introduction, I examine the connection between nineteenth-century notions of taste as women's work and a masculine tradition of aesthetic philosophy from the eighteenth century. In the context of theorists of taste, including sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, anthropologist Mary Douglas, and philosopher Carolyn Korsmeyer, I trace how nineteenth century
representations of tasteful women are located at an important intersection between a commodified and nonnalizing discourse of female taste and a patriarchal tradition of assumed intellectual disinterestedness. In my Austen chapter, I use cultural histories of landscape to argue that the protagonist's unorthodox taste for gothic landscape and fiction indicates her resistance to becoming an object of taste for men. In my Bronte chapter I unpack the novel's metaphorics of cannibalism to elucidate its utopian notion of community based on shared tastes. And in my Gaskell chapter I suggest that the novel critiques shared taste as a foundation for social organization, instead substituting meritocracy based on scientific or even business acumen.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
cultural context, women, taste, status, British novels, judgement

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

Thesis originally deposited on 2015-09-28 in version 1.28 of Libra. This thesis was migrated to Libra2 on 2017-03-23 16:38:00.

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