student profile: Miss Sophie Frazer


Thesis work

Thesis title: Distempered Visions: Specular Mourning in Victorian fiction

Supervisors: Vanessa SMITH

Thesis abstract:

My thesis questions the force and function of mourning in the work of Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot, pursuing the complicity of textual and cultural modes of mourning. I am interested in understanding the elegiac urgency alive in the respective novels of these authors, forging a connection between their uniquely visual aesthetics and contemporary models of human mourning. The narratives that I will treat emerge not from the fullness or unity of untroubled origin, but from places of fragmentation or occlusion. Similarly, these texts deny conventional closure and reparation, refusing to solder broken narrative elements, offering instead disconsolate visions of sustained mourning. What might be the function of a poetics of interminable loss? What emerges from a dialectic of textual bereavement and aesthetic discontinuities, manifest in temporal and linguistic asymmetry or implosion? How does the psychological paralysis of mourning (as it is conventionally figured in psychoanalytical accounts) find narrative expression?

There is an identifiable critical need to explicate the valences of grief in the work of these authors, in particular one that might account for the sensitivities of embodied mourning. What I wish specifically to address is the collation of feeling and vision – specular and metaphorical – in the novels, in an attempt to elucidate the complexities of the relationship between these two fundamental aspects. While Victorian visual culture has been substantially addressed by recent scholarship, there remains a paucity of investigation of the connections between altered modes of seeing and modes of feeling. In other words, what does a distinctly visual (and invariably warped and troubled) dialectic reveal about the vicissitudes and contingencies of loss? The novels I address are fascinated by the nature of vision and blindness, and question how literature might depict grief in a world newly crowded by the visual.
My choice of authors is due not simply to their well-documented personal experiences of profound grief, but rather because their respective novels speak of a certain dissatisfaction and bewilderment with the personal and social expression of bereavement. I contend that this discomfit is reified through a distinctly specular dialectic that works to destabilise notions of perspective and integrity of form. My methodology will draw upon the transformation in mourning rites and attitudes that occurred during the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries, interleaving socio-historical context with literary exegesis. I also draw upon nineteenth and early twentieth-century science, drawing together discoveries in physics and optics, medicine, philosophy, and the rapid transformations occurring in visual technologies. I am interested, too, in the materiality of Brontë’s juvenilia, and the drafts of her novels, hoping to incorporate their mysterious diminutiveness into my argument.

Note: This profile is for a student at the University of Sydney. Views presented here are not necessarily those of the University.