Jessica Allsop

Department: English
Discipline: English

Project Summary

In contrast to the widely held notion that the Victorian period marked a turn away from the popular appeal of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century cabinet of curiosities, this thesis examines late-Victorian fiction in order to argue for the continued, culturally resonant significance of what it calls the Curiosity Complex. The study uses this term in order to consider a variety of popular and canonical literature that can be understood to complicate those classificatory and commodificatory imperatives that have been associated with nineteenth-century material culture, by twentieth- and twenty-first-century critical theorists as well as the Victorians themselves.

Without seeking to diminish the powerful and pervasive way in which these imperatives permeated Victorian culture and society, it is the contention of this thesis that processes of classification and commodification generated a pronounced interest in those kinds of things or modes of collecting that defied their centripetal force. As a result, the focus of the study falls upon late-nineteenth and early- twentieth century fiction that dramatized objects, collections and collectors that lay at a remove from or at odds with the totalising, hegemonic hold commonly associated with the Museum and the Market.

Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer begin the Dialectic of Enlightenment by noting that ‘In the most general sense of progressive thought, the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty’ (3). That being so, then this thesis explores the way in which the ongoing Enlightened drive to classify and commodify the world in the late Victorian period found oppositional, fictional form in the Curiosity Complex, a fascinating but frightening world of unknowable objects and enslaved subjects.

By analysing a range of texts through the lense of the curiosity complex, this thesis will indicate a disparate series of collecting behaviours and objects¸ structured around a series of critiques of modernity through which object relations, material culture and identity are engaged with and explored.   The thesis will consider novels and short stories by Richard Marsh, Vernon Lee, M.R. James, George Gissing, Arthur Machen, Wilkie Collins, Bram Stoker, Mary Humphry Ward, and Mary Cholmondeley. Each text actively engages with the practice of collection, the figure of the collector, and individual private collections. The thesis will address issues of masochistic masculinity, degeneracy, professionalism, and legacy as explored through conflicted collectors and agency laden objects. 

Each chapter seeks to broadly locate its respective collecting figure within its context (historical, social, and critical), before drawing out the particular object relations that collecting history, thing theory, object theory, and museum studies have demonstrated the significance, and even problematic nature of. In this way this thesis will look to explore the effect of the museum, and of an obsession with collecting, on expectations regarding private and public male duty; the role of discourses of psychological and physiological decline in the imagining of an existence devoid of public duty participation in the market; negotiations and compromises arising from proximity to the market and affiliation with the museum; and actualities of inherited family collections in an age inspired by the stability and permanence of the museum collection. While engaging with a broad range of aspects of nineteenth century studies the focus of this study is the various themes through which dominant hegemonic impulses were responded to, in short, through which the curiosity complex was enacted and explored. 

Supervisory Team

Supervisor: Dr Paul Young  

Deputy Supervisor: Dr John Plunkett