Masculinity under the Microscope: Nineteenth-Century Naturalism’s Feminine Frame
Royal Holloway, University of London
Year of enrolment: 2015 -
Supervisor: Dr Ruth Livesey
My thesis investigates the feminine framing of natural history in Victorian literature and culture. Nineteenth-century naturalism in many ways dwelt within the feminine sphere of Victorian culture. For many naturalists the family home and its surrounding gardens and greenhouses perfectly accommodated the nature of their scientific research. Darwin himself relied heavily upon the epistolary observations of both the wives of his associates and his own daughters; seemingly domestic trivia concerning the peculiarities of pets, children and garden-plants soon became synonymous with scientific data. Furthermore, as the microscope unveiled ‘a world of wonder and beauty before invisible’ (Gosse) scientific understanding was often expressed in terms of aesthetic sensitivity: a particle of water or dust becoming a phanstasmagoric ‘tiny bronze fan’ or ‘precious gem’ of the fairy realm. Therefore, from its literal locus within the domestic domain to its associations with botany and aesthetic appreciation, naturalism tenuously resided between leisure and labour. My thesis seeks to reconcile later ‘masculine’ methods of science like classification, taxonomy and empiricism with their ‘feminine’ precursors of perception, sensitivity, and empathy. The questions that form the basis for my enquiry are: How did scientific men benefit from embracing characteristics coded as feminine? How does literature manifest the connection between feminine attentiveness and scientific observation? Does the masculinisation of naturalism correlate with scientific study moving from the sphere of amateur pastime to professional pursuit? How does this change contribute to a new tension between a naturalist’s professional and private personae? I will draw on a wide range of material including household and scientific periodicals, the Darwin Correspondence Project, and the literature of George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell. Overall, this thesis makes a significant, interdisciplinary contribution to the growing field of research on science and the history of emotions by recognising the feminine underpinnings behind naturalism’s evolution.