The specter of the American Civil War in British writing of the mid-nineteenth century.
In this project, I argue that in the years leading up to the American Civil War, America became Britain’s gothic double, making manifest some of Britain’s most keenly felt anxieties. The increasing tensions in America, which finally erupted in civil war in 1861, unsettled the relationship between America and Britain, forcing the British to face their own internal tensions more directly, and transformed America into a gothic figure in the British imaginary. As Britain debated democratic reforms, many looked to America as a model, and, as Christine DeVine notes, a journey to America in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century provided “an opportunity to view first-hand the utopia or dystopia to come in the democratic Britain already in the making as Britons debated expansion of the voting franchise” (10). Additionally, abolitionist rhetoric on both sides of the Atlantic was bringing issues of gender and class inequality to a head. In a sense, America became Britain’s ghost of past, present, and future. Throughout this dissertation, I explore how popular British writing of the mid-nineteenth century is haunted by the American Civil War. Here, I refer to the war not as an event, but as an idea, considering its violence and its primary ideological conflicts. I examine travel narratives and fiction by British novelists in the years surrounding the war. The Victorian period in Britain, although it is bookended by international conflicts, is typically characterized as a time of relative peace that fostered a culture of reform. The debates surrounding this reform did not take place in isolation, however. The intense conflict in America intensified the desire for reform but also raised fears regarding its consequences. Discussing the works of mid-century Victorian writers in the context of the Anglo-American relationship sheds new light on these writers’ engagement with the major social and political movements of their time and shows how history itself haunts their texts. Not all of the works I discuss here address America or the war directly, but the shadow of America’s conflict can be felt in their central anxieties.