Building a mind: Reading Victorian character through architecture

Megan Burke Witzleben, Fordham University


"Building a Mind" argues that architectural spaces provided the framework around which Victorian novelists built their characters' interiority. Set in the midst of exponential population growth, urban expansion, and bourgeoning psychological theories, the novels I consider speak to pervasive anxieties about the problem of identity in an unstable landscape. Considering authors ranging from Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot to E.M. Forster, I demonstrate that they associate such details as floor plans, layouts, and building materials with the mental scaffolding of personality. Readers might not initially know Pip of Great Expectations (1861), for example, but they learn about his mind through his interactions with the bricks and stairways of Satis House and Barnard's Inn. Similarly, in Villette and Middlemarch, the main characters embrace such structures as the cottage, which connected them to more traditional ways of life. Yet even as the works I consider abound in images of the home, they also revolve around what I have identified as a central and abiding tension: the desire to make the domicile a private, interior space of retreat and the countervailing inability of the domestic to block out the pressures of the external world. Interdisciplinary in scope, my project focuses both on careful analysis of the novels themselves and on the excavation of relevant historical contexts. The materials I examine include Victorian architectural journals and psychological essays, as well as publications by John Ruskin and William Morris. I further consider these texts in terms of theoretical studies of how physical, mental, and social spaces interrelate. I begin my dissertation with a reading of William Wordsworth's "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey" alongside accounts of Sir Walter Scott's home at Abbotsford to establish Romantic literary influences on the Gothic Revival that characterized much Victorian architecture. Calling new homes "Frankenstein monsters," John Ruskin invokes Romantic Gothic storytelling to convey his horror at the homes whose construction he influenced. In the end, he and others may have wanted to cordon off certain spaces as safe havens, but they had to confront the realization that these refuges were far from inviolate.

Subject Area

Comparative literature|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Witzleben, Megan Burke, "Building a mind: Reading Victorian character through architecture" (2012). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3560208.