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In a lather: The Victorian dirt crisis, 1848-1895

Lindsay Mayo Fincher, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Victorians were worried about dirt. With the rise of industrialism in the first quarter of the century and billows of polluting smoke that complemented this growth, it was difficult to ignore the sheer amount of dirt amassing in the cities. Dirt had long been tied to conversations of progress and it is dirt in the cities that Victorians found highly disconcerting and inescapable. Competing with this anxiety about dirt was a nostalgic longing for the agrarian dirt of days of yore, forcefully articulated by the return to the pastoral in literature and the popularity of the brown, dirty, tones of the picturesque in art. Yet, beyond a troubled fantasy of the countryside with its fecund, life-giving dirt, Victorian nostalgia for a pre-industrial society was deepened and complicated by the actual unearthing of the past. Starting in 1848 and ending in 1895, my dissertation closely examines the complex and shifting definition of dirt in this roughly fifty-year time span, in order to argue the importance of dirt as a remarkably complex measure of England’s view of its own progress and regress. Although it is nigh impossible to locate a fixed idea of dirt in the Victorian period—the vacillating moods of science, art, politics, literature, and popular culture render it a dynamic term—it seems apparent that one dichotomy held true: dirt was sacred and profane. It was sacred in that dirt provided a source for answers about the past and the imagined future. Dirt was profane by its bodily threat, the monstrous anxiety it generated about disease, and by its ability to diminish progress. To demonstrate these vacillations—between progress and regress, sacred and profane—as it concerns the Victorian regard for the term dirt, each chapter of my dissertation engages with representative texts from a given decade.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Mayo Fincher, Lindsay, "In a lather: The Victorian dirt crisis, 1848-1895" (2016). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI10100534.