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  • 2022SpencePhD

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All Ears: Listening, Sympathy, and the Aesthetics of Victorian Realism

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Publication date3/05/2022
Number of pages265
Awarding Institution
Thesis sponsors
  • AHRC North West Consortium
Award date3/05/2022
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


This thesis argues for an associative relationship between listening and sympathy in the aesthetic structures of nineteenth-century realism. With a focus on works by George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Henry James and Margaret Oliphant, the project sets Victorian literature in conversation with contemporaneous scientific and philosophical thought. I consider how these authors were thinking (and writing) about what it means to sympathise and what it means to listen, and how these activities were often mobilised synchronously in novels of the long nineteenth century. Reading sympathy as a key index of nineteenth-century ideologies of progress, civilisation and advancement, I claim that practices of listening were linked¾conceptually, aesthetically, and pragmatically¾to this model of cultivated sympathy.

Victorian sympathy’s ideological prowess was, I argue, put under considerable
pressure by the mid-nineteenth century’s refiguring of sympathy as material and
affective, rather than a purely cerebral or imaginative enterprise. Contiguous to this shift in conceptualising sympathy as a physiological process, newly materialised theories of sound became entangled with a cultural reorientation of listening as a practice. This double reorientation intersected in ways that form the subject of my focus here; the conceptual alliance between listening and sympathy was mutually informative in terms of how both practices came to be understood, and troubled apparently settled categories and values.

The aesthetics of listening in the nineteenth-century novel reflect a Victorian
sympathetic ideology that was also central to the project of realism. Critical approaches to nineteenth-century realism have often been marshalled by an analogical link between sympathy and spectatorship. By attending to a metonymic relation between sound and sympathy in Victorian realist writing, the thesis reappraises the aesthetics of realism in terms of embodiment, representation, and subjectivity. In recasting both the teleology of Victorian sympathy and the visual paradigm of realism, the project signals a new
way of listening to sympathy in the nineteenth-century novel.