Reading female learning in the mid-Victorian novel
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"Reading Female Learning in the mid-Victorian Novel" considers depictions of learning girls and learned women in English novels between 1848 and 1870 as dramatizing the varied relationships between femininity and learning during an era of great educational change. In analyzing novels by Charlotte Yonge, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Lewis Carroll in the context of their cultural-historical conditions, this project examines the significance of education to understandings and performances of Victorian femininity. Its readings identify a pervasive vision of middle-class femininity as incompatible with scholarly learning or educational ambition. "Reading Female Learning" surveys shifting contemporary perceptions and practices of education for girls and women, demonstrating that female education remained a central concern over the course of the nineteenth century in England. Close readings track how novels portray how education affects the female learner as well as how novels construct, consider, and resolve (or not) the perceived incompatibility between femininity and learning. This dissertation reads narratives of girls' progress to womanhood in novels by Yonge and Dickens as modeling the effects of learning on individual women and broader concepts of womanhood. It investigates how Brontë's Villette and Carroll's Alice books represent the impact of education and ambition for learning on the female body. It examines how Eliot's The Mill on the Floss represents the influence of learning on individual female identity in relation to society. As a whole, the project explores the relationships between individual women and society, paying particular attention to how novels implicitly or explicitly position the learning female character as a example for women inside and outside the text. Looking beyond the governess and the "New Woman" to the diverse concepts and experiences of female education in mid-Victorian England, "Reading Female Learning" presents the learning or learned woman as a valuable lens through which to investigate education's potentials for and effects on individual and gender development.