Undercover in the Underclasses: Dressing Down in Victorian Literature

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0002-8726-9891
Andersen, Kirsten, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Chase Levenson, Karen, Department of English, University of Virginia
Arata, Stephen, Department of English, University of Virginia
Stauffer, Andrew, Department of English, University of Virginia

"Undercover in the Underclasses: Dressing Down in Victorian Literature" focuses on narratives in which characters embark on a perceived figurative “descent” into another class or race, through disguise or performance. Tracing the narrative device of “dressing down” back to its origins in the theater, this dissertation argues that performance shaped the Victorian understanding of racial difference and class stratification, and provided a way of bridging those divides. The chapters map the spaces in which these performances occur: moving outward from the home, to the city, and the empire.

Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, Wilkie Collins’s No Name, and Ellen Wood’s East Lynne are the central texts of the first chapter, which examines servant impersonation in the Victorian household. Written in the 1850s and 1860s, the decades in which the ideology of separate spheres was at its height, these novels dramatize current anxieties about shifting gender roles by portraying dangerous and even criminal women. Female servant impersonators are inherently “fallen woman” in terms of social class, but are often sexually fallen as well. Their disguised and fallen state associates servant impersonators with the duplicitous theatricality of the actress and the dangerous sexuality of the prostitute. The presence of such a deceitful figure in the fictional home was threatening, but also invited readers’ sympathy for this simultaneous insider and outsider. Theatrical adaptations put such figures on the stage, further courting audience members’ sympathy through the physical embodiment of the actress.

The second chapter examines texts that represent slumming in London’s East End and Surrey Side: including James Greenwood’s “A Night in a Workhouse,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” and Henry Mayhew’s theatrical adaptations of London Labour and the London Poor. The Poor Law of 1834 distinguished between the “truly deserving” poor versus the merely idle beggar; by contrast, slumming narratives present an alternate discourse in which performance promotes cross-class sympathy and facilitates interactions between different social classes. By contrast to the Poor Laws’ valorization of authenticity, the slumming journalist and the “professional” beggar draw attention to the performative nature of social class, and both performers ask their audience to willingly suspend their disbelief, as if in the theater.

Chapter three addresses the performance of race and culture in boys’ adventure fiction. Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines are preoccupied with the formation of British masculine identity. The elaborate playacting found in these novels prepares the boys to take their places as administrators of empire; however, the boys’ Orientalized and feminized disguises reveal British imperial masculinity to be surprisingly flexible, creative, and playful—and open to experimenting with non-white and non-male roles.

This project contributes to the ongoing scholarly endeavor to recuperate the Victorian stage as an object of study, demonstrating that dramatic adaptations of novels can function as literary criticism in their own right. “Transmediation” is a more apt term to describe the transformation or translation between media than “adaptation,” since it does not privilege one medium as original or superior. The Victorians happily consumed the same narratives in serialized, volume, or dramatic form. Characters likewise transcended their original medium. This dissertation explores the rich cross-pollination across printed, visual, and dramatic media, while unpacking the implications of transgressing the boundaries of class or race.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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