The politics of female plainness in British women’s writing, 1830-1867
thesisposted on 18.08.2021, 11:22 by Mona Albassam
This thesis explores the representation of female plainness as a choice and as a defining feature of identity in mid-nineteenth-century British women’s fiction. I consider how female plainness, contrary to our modern interpretation of it as self-effacing or invisible, became self-defining and empowering. Based on a selection of novels written between the 1830s and 1860s by Charlotte Brontë and other contemporary, but often underexplored, authors such as Margaret Oliphant, Dinah Mulock Craik, Sarah
Stickney Ellis, and Eliza Lynn Linton, I examine the ways in which female plainness offered an alternative set of values and opportunities of self-expression within a culture dominated by its own social and cultural notions of female beauty, femininity, and what constitutes acceptable behaviour. I argue that plainness evolves in mid-nineteenth century women’s writing as a subversive category that emphasises issues of resistance, empowerment, and female agency. While there already exists a substantial amount of
research focused on the representation of the plain heroine in the canonical works of Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot, this thesis demonstrates the evolving interest in plainness at mid-century in ways not recognised before. The female authors whose works I engage with in this thesis should be recognised as active participants in the debates that shaped the contemporary discourse of plainness and its subversiveness in women’s writing. This thesis offers an original stance on plainness in women’s writing, acknowledging both its dynamic and creative features as well as the challenges it created.