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Title: Luxury and corruption : a literary and cultural study, 1800-1875
Author: Leonard, Rachel Samantha
ISNI:       0000 0004 5357 6388
Awarding Body: Birkbeck (University of London)
Current Institution: Birkbeck (University of London)
Date of Award: 2014
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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.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available