‘Transportation is Physical, Communication Iis Psychical’: Female Sexuality and Modes of Communication in Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Literature
Publication Type
Original research

This PhD thesis connects the discourses of transatlanticism, erotic communication, women and agency in the nineteenth century. It examines four modes of communication: mesmerism, spiritualism, telegraphism and epistolary correspondence, in relation to discourses of female sexuality and power in Anglo-American literature. The exploration of these modes from a feminist point of view will help re-evaluate the presence of women within nineteenth-century transatlantic communication systems and specifically the representation of female voices within public spaces. The Industrial Revolution and the increase of transportation between Britain and America enabled the emergence of various forms of psychic and written communication that constituted a solid background for gender subversion. 
Women’s active participation in mesmerism and spiritualism, which prevailed on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1830s and late 1840s, was a significant cultural subject that opened the door for unconventional reinterpretations of gender roles within clairvoyant systems of mediation. The description of women’s performative acts during mesmeric and spiritualist practices in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851), Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), Florence Marryat’s There Is No Death (1891) and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s Three Spiritualist Novels (1868; 1883; 1887) subverts the gendering of communication and discourse as masculine. Bodily acts of mesmerised women such as gazing and female mediums’ acoustic contact with spirits through the sound effects of table-rapping violate the boundaries between domestic and social spheres and warrant their sexual autonomy. 

Moving from supernatural to embodied forms of communication, the thesis explores the place of Anglo-American women within nineteenth-century written correspondence such as telegrams and letters, the circulation of which helps acknowledge female desire outside the domestic space and subverts patriarchal spatial structures. With reference to Henry James’s In the Cage (1898), Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) and Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Purloined Letter’ (1844), the thesis shows how women act as conduits of their sexual desire and become agents of knowledge exchange via working at telegraph offices or simply writing and posting private letters. In relation to this, the thesis also considers the association between epistolary adestination, desire, flames and textual purity in Dickens and Poe’s fictions of fire. The thesis concludes that women’s interactive presence in nineteenth-century communication systems continues to influence and develop twentieth- and twenty-first-century media for the empowerment of feminine sexual expression against opposing patriarchal voices. 

Lancaster University
Lancaster University
Publisher Country
United Kingdom
Publication Type
Both (Printed and Online)