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Soils, science, and the English realist novel: 1840-1872

Scown, Jim 2021. Soils, science, and the English realist novel: 1840-1872. PhD Thesis, Cardiff University.
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Abstract

This thesis is about soils in mid-nineteenth-century literary realism and science. For novelists and scientists of the period, soils offered access to truthful knowledge of the world. This is my primary argument. In novels by Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot, soil description situates studies of lived experience in a material world that is empirically verifiable as it is dirtied and imperfect. In the same years, chemists were developing new methods of analysis and experimentation to explore soils as never before; Justus von Liebig’s organic chemistry promised to reveal the constituent minerals of soils and how these were assimilated by plants. As chemistry reduced soils from vital and unknowable spaces to a quantifiable set of nutrients, isolating the world’s fertility for agricultural production, the novels I read resisted this productionist ethos, especially as it extended from soil to people. Yet while realist novels offered alternative investigations of soils, granting them agency and tracing the exploitative networks by which earthly fertility was being assimilated into a rapacious economics, realist narrative also remained committed to a providential patterning of soil as resource. Chemists and novelists alike saw a material world to be networked into a liberal capitalism in order to extract wealth or, read more favourably, improve human wellbeing. So as Brontë, Gaskell, Dickens, and Eliot expose the socioecological violences of a burgeoning world economy, they also perpetrate and extend these violences on lands and peoples beyond the bounds of realism’s provincial focus; this tension emerges as a fracture in realist form between open economic and ecological networks and the need for narrative closure. My thesis thus unearths a shared interest in soils across literature and science of the period, augmenting the established conception of a psychological realism by revealing a novel form examining matter as well as mind.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Date Type: Completion
Status: Unpublished
Schools: English, Communication and Philosophy
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General)
Funders: AHRC
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 23 July 2021
Last Modified: 23 Jul 2021 11:19
URI: http://orca.cardiff.ac.uk/id/eprint/142798

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