University of Sussex
Rees, Deborah Jane.pdf (5.23 MB)

Narratives of isolation: space, place, and the solitary girl child in late nineteenth-century art and literature

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posted on 2023-06-09, 23:42 authored by Deborah Rees
This thesis explores the environmental experiences of isolation and solitude in literary and visual representations of girlhood in the 1890s and the influence of both upon changing notions of childhood, family, and selfhood in the period. The fictional girl figures I propose demonstrate how the experiences of isolation (as either an imposed or chosen condition of retreat), and solitude (the resulting state of being alone), intrude upon childhood to manifest a radical new female experience within specific environmental contexts. I consider the places of the home, the rural world, and the urban cityscape as sites of performance, where the space of the environment produces prescriptive role-playing necessitated by an obligation to conform to societal and cultural expectation. Girlhood isolation within these sites, I argue, heightens perceptions, highlights conformities, and perpetuates a revaluation of personal needs and desires that results in self-determination and fulfilment. I contend in the thesis that particular fictional figures and narratives of isolated young girls emerge historically at precisely the time that understandings of fixed gendered places and performances are in a state of fluidity. In these circumstances such fictional girls acquire a liberating space in which to develop, and the agency with which to define themselves in contradistinction to their parents, their peers, and the expectations of late nineteenth-century society. Henry James, Sarah Grand, Stephen Crane, and the neglected British artist, Thomas Cooper Gotch, acutely observed such connections between girlhood and autonomous behaviours, and their creative responses to the emergence of what I read as a ‘new childhood autonomy’ are thus intrinsically linked to each other and with this defining period of change. The growth of child psychology as a specific branch of mental science and a newly-established academic discipline at the fin de siècle begins to explain the significance of the period’s attempts to capture the ‘voice’ of the child, and the significance of such studies in articulating girlhood as an emancipatory force for radical change. The thesis also questions the connection between these fictional images and texts and the turn-of-the-century preoccupation with childhood development and experience expressed in a number of non-fiction works.


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University of Sussex

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