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    Luxury and corruption: a literary and cultural study, 1800-1875

    Leonard, Rachel Samantha (2014) Luxury and corruption: a literary and cultural study, 1800-1875. PhD thesis, Birkbeck, University of London.

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    This thesis explores the connection between luxury and corruption – an eighteenth-century axiom – in nineteenth-century literature and culture. Literary critics have mostly interpreted nineteenth-century luxury in terms of material culture: fetishised commodity (Andrew Miller) or, an example of recent reaction to this approach, historical metonym (Freedgood). There is little interest in broader understandings, as if a concept held responsible for the downfall of civilizations disappeared overnight. My own work aims to open out our sense of its nineteenth-century meanings by extending Sekora’s intellectual history of luxury (1977), which concludes with Smollett, and Berry’s politically focused study (1994), to discover what happened between the age of luxury as pathology and fall and nineteenth-century fin-de-siècle notions of luxury as biological degeneration and decadence. This study is structured around five key novels and corresponding themes that reveal nineteenth-century attitudes to luxury: Austen’s Mansfield Park, 1814 (slavery), Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, 1848 (temperance), Gaskell’s Mary Barton, 1848 (prostitution), and Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, 1865 with Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, 1875 (national decline). Combining an historicist approach with close reading, the thesis foregrounds political and economic ideas, from Ferguson’s classical republicanism to Malthus’s population theory. It attends closely to nuanced language use in representing human wants: valorised ‘necessities’, moralised ‘luxuries’, sometimes evasive ‘comforts’ and ‘refinements’. Despite luxury’s apparent rehabilitation in an economically liberal age, persisting concerns are found regarding its corruption of individuals and nations, especially at the beginning and towards the end of the nineteenth century, when national decline was more feared. This thesis finds a liberty-slavery dichotomy as the nineteenth-century luxury issue, whether manifested negatively – other-enslavement to procure luxury, self-enslavement to luxurious appetites, or national enslavement caused by luxury-led emasculation and political decay – or positively – free trade, affirmation of acquisitive desire or celebration of luxurious excess as antidote to rigid control.


    Item Type: Thesis
    Additional Information: Date of PhD award confirmed as 2014 by registry
    Copyright Holders: The copyright of this thesis rests with the author, who asserts his/her right to be known as such according to the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988. No dealing with the thesis contrary to the copyright or moral rights of the author is permitted.
    Depositing User: Acquisitions And Metadata
    Date Deposited: 17 Sep 2014 14:16
    Last Modified: 01 Nov 2023 12:12


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