Agents of change : stewardship and the ethic of care in nineteenth-century British literary representations of social change
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The steward was a ubiquitous figure in England for the centuries during which the landed estate dominated both the geographical and political landscape and figured prominently in Victorian religious and economic discourses. However, the figure of the steward and the role and the ethic of stewardship have not been subjected to sustained critical scrutiny in literature studies. This study therefore adopts a social historical approach to explore the function of stewards and stewardship in representations of social change in nineteenth-century English fiction, including George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-72; 1874), Anthony Trollope’s The Warden (1855), Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856) and Charlotte Brönte’s Villette (1853). Stewards managed the property of England’s major landholders and ensured the financial prosperity of their estates by carefully managing social relations. Their duties required them to connect, communicate, and reconcile the varied interests of different classes and groups and especially to synthesize profit and sympathy, economy and feeling. These duties made stewards ideally situated to observe, accommodate, resist, and participate in processes like enclosure, parliamentary reform, and industrialization that altered landscapes and changed people’s relationships to property. Based on this historical reality, this project proposes that stewardship represented to Victorians a non-possessive approach to property management that made stewards important figures through which to represent and imagine processes of transition that emphasized growth, development, and change based on de-centralized, inclusive principles, principles often conceptualized as acts of caring and the establishment of community. It therefore applies the framework of the ethic of care to explore how stewards represent the ways that Victorians dealt with concerns about changing definitions of and relationships to property that defined agency and power in the nineteenth century. Observing characters who act as stewards under the ethic of care rubric reveals maps of power in these novels that indicate that values like care and community could be instrumentalized to secure the authority and predominance of the socially powerful. The project also explores how novels and novelists mirrored both the functions and the moral ambivalence of the steward as they participated in aesthetic projects and acts of representation associated with affective community creation.