Genres of Population: Biopolitics and the Victorian Novel

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Despite being famously overpopulated with characters, nineteenth-century novels are typically read in terms of the individual. Addressing this incongruity, “Genres of Population: Biopolitics and the Victorian Novel” examines how novels imagine the human mass in an era of rapid demographic growth. My dissertation argues that Victorian novels conceptualize the population by turning a seemingly inscrutable collective into an object of knowledge and control. I contend that biopolitics—Michel Foucault’s term for the discourses and practices of managing lives—depends on novels to articulate the conditions, methods, and experiences of demographic regulation. Though attempts to enumerate the English population date back to the 1085 Domesday Book, the first census of 1801 made demographic information available at unprecedented levels. The census launched an age of population management that, I assert, influenced and was influenced by novels. Analyzing what I call narratives of demographic crises, my project shows how Victorian novels depict the population as intractable yet governable—prone to chaos, degeneration, and extinction while also amenable to governmental intervention.

Extending Foucault’s claim that biopolitical theories and mechanisms emerged in the nineteenth century, “Genres of Population” examines the historical roots of biopower, situating its early moments in a century known for its state paternalism, statistical advances, and social reforms. Even as Foucault locates the concept in the nineteenth century, scholarship on biopolitics tends to focus on the present or recent past. By contrast, I historicize biopolitics and demonstrate how Victorian novels portray the population as a collective to be protected. While Victorians had their own terms for this collective—such as the social body, the aggregate, and the crowd—I call this collective the population so as to emphasize the state’s role in its management. My research thus challenges the usual approach of studying biopolitics in a twentieth- and twenty-first-century setting and the usual critique that the novel is a genre that posits the individual as an agentive subject. In revealing the confluence of Victorian fiction and biopolitical thought, my project exposes the nineteenth-century literary influences of population discourses.

To track how novels form the concept of a governable population, I analyze a diverse set of texts—from social problem novels, where one would expect to find representations of the population, to sensation novels, where the population is no less important but less obviously an issue. I focus each chapter on a novelistic subgenre and an aspect of demographic control. By pairing form with history, I show how each subgenre reacts to the historical circumstances affecting the population. The first three chapters illuminate how social problem, sensation, and slum novels construct ideas of the population in response to advances in statistics and demography, changes in family structure and reproduction, and movements for housing reform. The final chapter departs from discussing novels’ roles in molding the population into an object of state power by offering the socialist novel as an example of how novels participate in creating rather than regulating mass life. These chapters illustrate Victorian novels’ contribution to theories of population management, ultimately revising our narratives about the rise of demography and the novel.

Chapter 1 examines Elizabeth Gaskell’s and Charles Dickens’s social problem novels, Mary Barton and Bleak House, to consider how statistical counting impacts the state’s ability to oversee the population. Gaskell’s working-class radical John Barton and Dickens’s vagrant Jo show how the abstraction necessary to quantify the population also obscures attempts to know it. Continuing to explore the effects of counting and the census, chapter 2 analyzes the household as a tool for population management via readings of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White and Ellen Wood’s The Shadow of Ashlydyat. The household emerges in these sensation novels as the preferred avenue for perpetuating the population, as the aristocratic family becomes associated with antiquated ideas about patrimony, reproduction, and land ownership. Chapter 3 also looks at the unit of the household but in the setting of slum fiction; in it, I show how housing reform colludes with the state’s efforts to track the population. Focusing on George Gissing’s The Nether World and Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago, I explain how these texts use cartographic language to turn the population into a spatial entity. My final chapter departs from emphasizing control to exploring how socialist novels redeploy biopolitical ideas to imagine a social body that circumvents state power. The utopia in William Morris’s News from Nowhere and the cultural center in Walter Besant’s All Sorts and Conditions of Men offer alternative forms of mass organization.

EMBARGO NOTE: This thesis was originally published under a 12 month embargo. Embargo has been extended until June 1, 2022
Doctor of Philosophy
Victorian studies, Victorian literature, Victorian novel, nineteenth-century literature, population, biopolitics

Hsu, Sophia. "Genres of Population: Biopolitics and the Victorian Novel." (2017) Diss., Rice University.

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