Hiding in Plain Sight: The Aesthetic of Plainness and the Nineteenth-Century Novel Form
This dissertation argues that nineteenth-century novelists depended on aesthetically unremarkable—or plain—women characters to establish the realist novel as the genre of the British middle class by mapping class values onto plain women’s bodies. By creating female characters with an unremarkable appearance, novelists train readers in the skills necessary to read the realist novel by focusing on interiority rather than materiality. I theorize plainness as a middle ground between beautiful and ugly that allowed authors to define a morality distinct from the upper and lower classes; plain heroines’ unremarkable exteriors embodied middle-class British values of authenticity, restraint, and morality. More than merely the non-beautiful, plainness delineated a very specific kind of moral and classed female subjectivity.
The aesthetic of plainness allowed novelists to engage with cultural discussions of modern female subjectivity, for in creating plain female characters, novelists wrote against idealized depictions of passive women. To accentuate a female character’s inner life, plainness in novels functions primarily through comparison, through networks of represented women. Whereas the literary angel-whore binary has been well-established, I am interested in how the presence of a plain woman—neither angel nor monster—complicates our understanding of heroines in novels. The progressive potential of plain woman speaks to a contemporary movement that rebukes the misogynistic trope of distrusting a woman’s surface and instead portrays plain women with deep feeling and individuated identities.