The Lie Of The Land: Landscape Aesthetics And British Realism

Zachary Fruit, University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

This dissertation charts the relationship between British realism and landscape aesthetics in order to reframe the novel’s established connection to the rise of capitalism. “The Lie of the Land” argues that passages of landscape description mediate and disguise the history of British land use. Land enclosure, the seizure and forcible privatization of common land, was a centuries-long process that reached a climax in the late eighteenth century and precipitated a number of aesthetic phenomena that became central to modern English national identity. Among these, the landscape garden, with its sweeping vistas, rolling hills, and lush vegetation, seemed to recover the loss of the unbounded English countryside. In fact, such gardens are icons of privatization and individualization. Unlike other accounts of the novel that focus on psychological individuation, spatiotemporal rationalization, or financial abstraction, my project emphasizes that land enclosure shaped the form of the English novel by developing aesthetic techniques that disguise both the historical and ongoing process of territorial expropriation and displacement. This analysis constitutes a widely applicable model for approaching figurations of land across various literary styles. Novels and landscape gardens are more than just parallel effects of England’s transition to capitalism. Victorian realists such as George Eliot and Thomas Hardy recognized landscape gardens as aesthetic objects with similar structural logics to those of the novel. Gardens and novels both use a variety of creative techniques to disguise their inherent artificiality through illusions of verisimilitude. Descriptions of landscape can thus be understood as moments where realist authors theorize realism. In readings of Defoe, Austen, Eliot, Hardy, and Conrad, this project establishes the evolving connection between literary landscape and English nationalism—while also reaffirming the historical ties between British realism and British imperialism. Drawing from art history and aesthetics, these readings offer a framework for understanding the related histories of English industrialization, property law, and British imperialism. “The Lie of the Land” understands the aesthetic surface to be just one of many mediations that document material history. As such, it is possible to read the landscape itself much as one reads a novel—as a hybrid product of formal choices and of individual and collective histories of exploitation and loss.