In his 1859 book British Novelists and Their Styles, literary critic David Masson noticed a peculiar fact about his country's novelists: they were all localists. Rather than devoting themselves to the depiction of human life in general, or even to national issues, Victorian novelists were interested solely in narrowly local circumstances, characters, and phenomena. My dissertation shows how, in a nation of global reach and a century of shrinking distances, Victorian writers such Emily Brontë, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens embraced, investigated, altered, and produced the localism that Masson identified. The Nation of Counties reveals the local to have been a major frame for the imagination of social life, a crucial component of English identity, and a central subject of Victorian fiction.
In my opening chapter, I describe the representation and description of the local at the turn of the nineteenth century. I show how Edmund Burke imagined localism to be a central and admirable facet of political life, and how the local was made a major focus of the writings of Gilbert White, Jane Austen, and Mary Mitford. The local perspectives offered by these texts were not simply taken as part of the "subdivision of labour" that Masson describes. Rather, their reception history, especially among Victorian critics, shows that they were transformed into representations of the real England. This nationalization of texts interested in the depiction of local concerns had the effect of simultaneously underscoring the importance of local distinctiveness to English identity and establishing a particular area—the woodland southeast—as quintessentially English. To participate in Englishness meant to embrace local particularity, but also to embrace a particular locality.
My second chapter moves to the most different place of all—the harsh northern wastes—to examine how localism fared in this conflict. I show how Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights depicts the experience of being outside of the imagined nation as one of deep alienation that engenders a commitment to localism that tips over into outright anti-sociability. Brontë does not want to give up on localism as a positive value, however, and she uses the device of Nelly Dean's narration to Lockwood as a way of representing and explaining local difference that coaxes readers into accepting this locality as worth recognizing and caring about. George Eliot has different aims: while she is on the one hand aesthetically committed to the realist depiction of local particularities, she is on the other ethically committed to the generation of broad sympathy in her readers. In my third chapter, I argue that in Middlemarch and beyond, Eliot balances these commitments by both representing and inculcating a feeling of local attachment that has no specific geographic referent. Eliot recognizes the prevailing strength of local sympathies, so she tries to make the entire nation—indeed, possibly even the entire world—local.
This Victorian concern with the local was not, of course, simply a rural issue, and one of its most interesting manifestations occurred with regard to London. As the capital of the nation, the empire, and a growing global economy, London and its representations were subject to an array of forces well above the local. I argue in my fourth chapter, however, that one aspect of London's transnationalism, its status as the nexus of abstract financial processes that ignored geographic boundaries and even material reality, was brought about in part by the localism of its portraitists. I show how Charles Dickens and a group of financial journalists transformed the real and particular space of the City, London's financial district, into a metonym for financial labor that was completely de-particularized, thus allowing transnational processes to be localized. The localism of transnationalism is taken up in my final chapter as well, where I sketch out some of the later novelistic reactions—by Virginia Woolf, Salman Rushdie, and Monica Ali—to the Victorian localism I describe in the rest of the project.
As Franco Moretti has demonstrated in Atlas of the European Novel , the Victorian novel market was not "an archipelago of local circuits" but astonishingly unified—the same books were being read in Lancashire as in Sussex (162). The Nation of Counties shows that while the novel market was straightforwardly national, the Victorian novel was not. Instead, Victorian writers imagined a nation that was indeed "an archipelago of local circuits," one that was made whole by its commitment to remaining in pieces. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)