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Title: The knight from nowhere : a biographical case study of social mobility in Victorian Britain
Author: Powell, Victoria Elizabeth
ISNI:       0000 0004 7230 0061
Awarding Body: Birkbeck, University of London
Current Institution: Birkbeck (University of London)
Date of Award: 2018
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This study re-­examines social mobility in Victorian Britain, focusing on the experiences of the actor Henry Irving (1838-­1905). Irving rose from ‘humble’ beginnings to become one of the most respected men in Victorian society, and was the first actor to receive a knighthood. The Victorians celebrated the possibilities of social mobility, or 'self-­making' as they termed it, through independence, diligence and thrift, pointing to exemplary figureheads such as Irving. But self-­making was a cultural fantasy, and this study tracks Irving’s experiences to investigate the realities of his unusual achievement. I explore life in the rural and urban places where Irving lived, and position him within cultures of education, theatre, and artistic bohemia. In this way I signal the importance of such contexts in modulating experience, behaviour, and bodily comportment. I demonstrate that the Victorians interpreted status through the effect of the presence of the body in social interaction and understood society as consisting of two groups, the polite and the vulgar. As Irving left behind the lower middle-class social circles of his youth that conditioned and constrained his bodily practices, and entered new social circles, he changed the way he spoke, presented himself and moved his body. Without this bodily reconditioning, I argue, Irving would not have achieved what he did. This is not just a biographical narrative of one individual’s life. Rather, it is a study of the importance of the particular in historical analysis. It is about how the individual negotiated wider processes, practices and ideas in Victorian Britain, and the ways in which these factors shaped his experience. I show how a focused analysis of one man, his body, his life experiences and his representation in auto/biography can yield new insights into power relations, cultures of class, and social mobility in the Victorian period.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available