Revolutionary Narratives, Imperial Rivalries
This dissertation considers England's imperial rivalry with France and its influence on literary production in the long nineteenth century. It offers a new context for the study of British imperialism by examining the ways in which mid-Victorian novels responded to and were shaped by the threat of French imperialism. It studies three canonical Victorian novels: William Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1846-1848), Charlotte Brontë's Villette (1853) and Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and argues that even though these texts deal very lightly with the British colonies and feature very few colonial figures, they are still very much "about empire" because they are informed by British anxieties regarding French imperialism. Revolutionary Narratives links each novel to a contemporary political crisis between England and France, and it argues that each novelist turns back to the Revolutionary period in response to and as a means to process a modern threat from France. This project also explains why Thackeray, Brontë and Dickens would return specifically to Revolutionary history in response to a French imperial threat. Its first chapter traces the ways in which "Revolutionary narratives," stories about how the 1789 French Revolution had changed the world, came to inform and to lend urgency to England and France's global, imperial rivalry through their deployment in abolitionist writings in both countries. Abolitionist tracts helped to fuse an association between "empire" and "Revolution" in the Romantic period, and recognizing this helps us to understand why Victorian writers would use Revolutionary narratives in response to imperial crisis. However, this dissertation ultimately asserts that Vanity Fair, Villette and A Tale of Two Cities revive Revolutionary history in order to write against it and to lament its primacy in popular discourse. In the mid nineteenth century, public discussion in England and France tended to return quickly to the history of the Revolutionary period in order to contextualize new political drama between the two countries. This meant that history often seemed to be repeating itself when it came to England and France's rivalry. Thackeray, Brontë and Dickens use Revolutionary history in their novels as a way to react against this popular use of history and in an effort to imagine a new path forward for England and France, one not burdened by the weight of the past.