"Precious States Of Mind": The Aesthetic Encounter In Victorian Literature

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This dissertation investigates literary representations of the scene of viewership in Victorian literature in order to interrogate how the narrative rendering of the "aesthetic encounter" brings to the fore the social and material realities of such moments that contemporary philosophical treatises on the subject often overlook, obscure, or repress. I am interested in the ways in which the scene or environment of the aesthetic encounter-be it in a private gallery or public museum space-structures power relations grounded in notions of taste, cultivation, and civility. Because the nineteenth-century philosophical aesthetic treatise does not avow the material conditions of viewing art, the narrative representation of such moments is particularly important in revealing that aesthetic experience is not and cannot be an intensely private moment, but is rather one that is thoroughly social and highly performative. Narrating the scene of aesthetic encounter in the nineteenth century was part of a larger cultural effort to represent sociality, to comprehend the vast network of circumstances and contingencies that determines one's relation to and perspective on the world and the other people in it. Depicting individual subjectivities in the act of aesthetic experience, writers such as Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Walter Pater, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James demystify the ideologies at work-and the ideologies being naturalized-in the viewing of paintings, the contemplation of sculpture, and in the admiration of cameos and antique coins. Throughout the dissertation I argue for renewed attention to how the increasingly experimental representations of the aesthetic encounter found in nineteenth-century literature rendered viewership an inherently self-conscious performance, paving the way for the novelistic portraits of artists as young men that were to dominate the literary landscape of the early twentieth century.

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