Spectacles of suffering
: self-harm in new woman writing 1880-1900

  • Alexandra Messem

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    This thesis aims to provide an examination of texts produced by and about the New Woman of the late-nineteenth century, with specific reference to the trope of self-harm. It aims to explore the connections between the fictional bodies of text in which the New Woman was represented, and the damaged bodies of women who committed self-destructive acts. It examines both the religious frameworks within which Victorian women’s fiction operated, and three specific forms of self-harm which feature across a range of textual artefacts. To this end, the thesis discusses New Woman novels, poems, and short stories as well as newspaper and magazine articles, archival materials, and popular works of art, all of which discuss or display the damaged female body. The scope of this project is limited to New Woman writing produced between 1880 and 1900, although it does consider the ways in which the New Woman built on, or challenged, discourses about self-harm which appear in materials produced during the earlier half of the nineteenth century.

    This research demonstrates that New Woman writers drew on forms of self-harm such as anorexia, alcoholism, and self-mutilation, to express their frustrations at the contradictory requirements of women endorsed by conventional religion, at a time during which attitudes towards the body were changing. It shows how the female form embodied various Victorian political and social debates, and how it was deployed as a strategic symbol, in writing which sought to disrupt women’s subordinate position within the patriarchal system. Consequently, this research contributes to the fields of psychiatric history, New Woman studies, and more generally the study of Victorian women’s writing, by examining both canonical and critically neglected texts by women alongside non-fictional materials from the period. It explores both fictional acts of self-harm, and textual strategies, which have yet to be examined in New Woman writing, and which are key to understanding her complicated place in the male-oriented publishing environment of the Fin de Siècle.
    Date of AwardMar 2014
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Portsmouth
    SupervisorPatricia Pulham (Supervisor) & Charlotte Boyce (Supervisor)

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