Gender dissonance and the bourgeois woman in the Victorian novel

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Linda M. Shires


Gender dissonance, Bourgeois, Victorian, Novel, Women characters, Queer, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Bronte, Thomas Hardy

Subject Categories

Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Literature in English, British Isles


Feminist studies of the Victorian novel have persuasively shown how domestic novels typically require the expulsion of the "monstrously" classed or sexed woman to achieve the individuation of the proper middle-class female subject and to maintain bourgeois hegemony. I argue, however, that domestic novels could alternately seek ways to incorporate the monstrous into constructions of the bourgeois woman, such that the domestic woman remains a site of contestation rather than a stable or homogeneous category. In the texts that I examine, "gender dissonance" is actively staged as spectacle for purposes of transformation rather than abjection. That is, these texts draw attention to contradictions within middle-class female subjectivity in order to critique the limits of bourgeois domestic ideology. I contend that non-normative or "queer" female subjectivities are not simply deviant entities intruding upon the domestic narrative from the margins of these novels but, as spectacles of desire, they are more productively represented emerging out of conflicting demands of gender and class in constructions of bourgeois womanhood.

In Chapter One, I argue that the middle-class Englishwoman is invited to identify with her Other, the active, independent, and more "public" working-class woman in Elizabeth Gaskell's mid-Victorian fiction through the trope of the cross-dresser. Chapter Two examines a contrasting deployment of cross-dressing or self-theatricalization in Charlotte Brontë's Villette , whereby the bourgeois female protagonist paradoxically lays claim to an "authentic" and exceptional subjectivity. To manage anxieties about the bourgeois woman's identification with "male" authority and desire, however, the text must disavow resemblances between working-class women and the middle-class protagonist.

The second half of the dissertation examines novels from the late-Victorian period that make gender dissonance visible by working sexuality against gender. Chapter Three argues that the figure of the lady's companion in Thomas Hardy's fiction registers a slippage between identification and desire between differently classed women within the space of domesticity. Chapter Four tracks the New Woman as queer "pleasure-seeker" in the space of Empire, in which gender dissonance becomes the norm yet it remains marked by exploitative power relations. A conclusion indicates avenues for further research.


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