Dissertation Abstract

My dissertation, “Epigraphic Encounters and the Origins of the British Novel,” uncovers the crucial role that chapter epigraphs played in the evolution of the English novel’s form and develops a new theory for reading this structurally significant paratext. Drawing our attention to epigraphs’ profoundly expressive non-semantic qualities, including size, attribution, aggregation, optionality, diversion, and hierarchical organization, “Epigraphic Encounters” argues that writers of the long nineteenth century harnessed these elements in order to create meaning and negotiate generic transformations—first from poetry to the novel, and then from one novel genre to another. Case studies of Ann Radcliffe, Walter Scott, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot demonstrate how chapter epigraphs facilitated the emergence of gothic, historical, and realist novels by making literary-historical negotiations an indelible part of their structural framework. My conclusion examines the influence of these texts on the twentieth-century writer John Fowles, and the role his novels played in characterizing chapter epigraphs as a “quintessentially” Victorian phenomenon. Though typically regarded as inconsequential textual curiosities, epigraphs in fact mediated some of nineteenth-century British fiction’s most significant generic developments.

This dissertation research has been supported by the Cornell English department’s Harry Falkenau Fellowship and Alan Young-Bryant Memorial Graduate Award in Poetry.