The Novel's Lost Illusions: Time, Knowledge, and Narrative in the Provinces, 1800-1933

Date of Award

Fall 10-1-2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Comparative Literature

First Advisor

Trumpener, Katie


This dissertation argues that the imaginative geography of “the provinces” played a key role in forging European narratives of modernity. In the wake of French revolutionaries’ suppression of older provincial identities, and as Britain expanded its imperial reach, the provinces were reinvented on various scales: from countryside to small town; from domestic region to faraway colony. “The Novel’s Lost Illusions” combines narrative theory, archival research, and critical and feminist geography in order to show how this mobile concept developed across multiple social and cultural frameworks, from the aftermath of the French Revolution (1800) to the beginning of decolonization (1933). And it argues that the problem of representing the provinces transformed the modern novel. With a focus on texts that eschew the trajectory of a male protagonist to the modern capital, and on formal innovations like asymmetrical plotting, unstable narrators, and the deployment of irrealist devices, the project reads against the grain of the “triumph” of both realist novel and modern nation-state. Instead it proposes an alternative understanding of space and place in modernity: one defined less by speed and connectivity than by belatedness, thwarted paths, and often precarious mobility. Over five chapters and a coda, I place novels of the realist tradition, by Honoré de Balzac, George Eliot, George Borrow, Emily Brontë, George Sand, Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust, and Alain-Fournier (as well as a number of lesser-known texts), in conversation with representations of the provinces in print culture, language politics, vagrancy laws, and imperial cartography. My first chapter analyzes Balzac’s Scenes of Provincial Life within the context of post-revolutionary debates about provincial cultural and literary autonomy. While much of French realism helped to mythologize the post-revolutionary provinces through an explanatory, ethnographic mode, I argue, the female-centered Eugénie Grandet (1833) and Ursule Mirouët (1841) drew formally unstable analogies between the domestic provinces and the colonies, thus ironically deflating imperial assumptions of provincial inferiority. Chapter Two turns to 1840s-era conflicts—from Chartism and Irish uprisings to France’s 1848 revolution—that recoded the provinces as sites of potentially dangerous unrest. Within this context, Sand’s pastoral triptych (1845-1848) and Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) experimented in incorporating dialect in order to “translate” provincial difference into a metropolitan key. In doing so, I argue, they also anticipated high modernism’s self-reflexivity and experimental temporality. The second half of the project traces a historical and aesthetic inversion in the way the provinces were imagined over the course of the century, from threatening to under threat. Chapter Three uses historical accounts of precarious gendered mobility in the British provinces as a framework for examining George Eliot’s early novels alongside George Borrow’s Romani narratives. Such a pairing enables us to recognize, in mid-century Victorian realism, a contested generic dialogue between the pastoral and picaresque. Chapters Four and Five continue to link narrative theory to the European spatial imaginary, as I contend that a reigning literary mode of irony yielded to elegy for provincial worlds that could be mourned just as—and precisely because—they were seen as at risk of being lost. Chapter Four focuses on domestic and imperial strategies of mapping provincial space in Hardy’s semi-fictional cartographies, while Chapter Five examines the politics of the pays in Third Republic-era regional cartography as a lens into the prose elegies of Alain-Fournier and Proust. The project ends by reading literary modernism not as diverging from nineteenth-century realism but as acutely condensing over a century of experiments in redefining the provinces. While such competing meanings stabilized on the one hand into nationalist fantasies of rootedness, they were also, I show in a coda, reworked to new ends in James Joyce’s semicolonial Dublin and Claude McKay’s anticolonial modernism. The project ultimately offers “provincial modernity” as a conceptual tool: a heuristic for grasping modernity’s uneven production of space beyond city/country, metropole/colony, and local/global divides. It contributes to a clearer understanding of the politics of literary geography and comparative study at scales below, as well as beyond, those of the nation-state.

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