Blasphemous bodies: Transgressive morality as cultural interrogation in romance fiction of the long nineteenth century
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The long nineteenth century was characterized by advances in medical, biological and technological knowledge that often complicated definitions of human life and blurred the lines between life and death. These changes impacted both beliefs and practices surrounding the human body and epistemological concepts relating to human nature and the cosmos. British fiction of the period participated in an interdiscursive tradition that was deeply informed by these discussions of the body. Romance writers in particular often engaged with these ideas in imaginative and innovative ways. Among the more provocative forms of engagement with these ideas is one that arises among romance writers who mingled new scientific knowledge with a popular tradition of physical immortality. These writers produced an array of texts treating a theme I have identified as “amortality”, a form of bodily immortality that is characterized by a transgression of death's bounds either through artificial prolongevity or reanimation. These texts posit a normative standard of mortality, and the amortal characters—figures who have avoided or escaped the grave—are presented as disruptive and often destructive, their unnatural or “blasphemous” bodies locating them outside the bounds of the religious, medical and/or socio-political orthodoxy and allowing them to serve as a locus for social examination and critique. The Western cultural imagination has long found immortality an intriguing and problematic subject for exploration. Both idealized and horrific visions of immortality have served as a locus for reflecting, legitimating, and contesting cultural values. Amortality continues and complicates this tradition of immortality as a cultural signifier. Arguing that amortality or transgressive mortality serves to mark the limits of the permissible—socially, politically, medically or religiously—whether in order to reinforce and naturalize those limits or to illuminate them as arbitrary and unjust, I examine these characters and texts as participants in the social issues of the time. Using an eclectic combination of approaches, including literary close reading, genre analysis, feminist criticism, and post-colonial theory, I examine a range of canonical, moderately well-known and unfamiliar texts and authors. Texts examined include William Godwin's St. Leon (1799), Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Zanoni (1842), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) and “The Mortal Immortal” (1833), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) and Jewel of Seven Stars (1903), Jane Webb Loudon's The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827), H. Rider Haggard's She (1887) and Ayesha: The Return of She (1904-5), and Ludwig Achim von Arnim's Isabella of Egypt (1812). Despite the significance of embodied immortality as an imaginative construct, this aspect of romance fiction has been neglected or treated as a peripheral characteristic of the genre, adding to the uncanny effect of the texts, but without critical significance. My study attempts to rectify this oversight by demonstrating the prevalence of this motif throughout the period and its adaptability to a wide range of critical purposes.
Table of Contents
Introduction: intimations of amortality -- The flawed ideal: immortality, irony, impatience and the critique of revolutionary change -- Posthumous lives: amortality and the problems of womanhood -- Romances of the fourth dimension: Amortality and a politics of womanhood -- Living words: amortality, materialism and homo logos -- Conclusion: viewing the tapestry