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Kimberly Cox, Touch, Sexuality, and Hands in British Literature, 1740–1901

Touch, Sexuality, and Hands in British Literature, 1740–1901

Kimberly Cox

From Robert Lovelace’s uninvited hand-grasps in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa to to Basil Hallward’s first encounter with Dorian Gray, literary depictions of touching hands in British literature from the 1740s to the 1890s communicate emotional dimensions of sexual experience that reflect shifting cultural norms associated with gender roles, sexuality​, and sexual expression. But what is the relationship between hands, tactility, and sexuality in Victorian literature? And how might scholars best interpret ​what those touches communicate between characters? This volume addresses these questions by asserting a connection between the prevalence of violent, sexually charged touches in eighteenth-century novels such as those by Eliza Haywood, Samuel Richardson, and Frances Burney and growing public concern over handshake etiquette in the nineteenth century evident in works by ​Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, and Flora Annie Steel. This book takes an interdisciplinary approach that combines literary analysis with close analyses of paintings, musical compositions, and nonfictional texts​, such as etiquette books and scientific treatises​, to make a case for the significance of tactility to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century perceptions of selfhood and sexuality. In doing so, it draws attention to the communicative nature of skin-to-skin contact ​as represented in literature and traces a trajectory of meaning from the forceful grips that violate female characters in eighteenth-century novels to the consensual embraces common in Victorian ​and neo-Victorian literature.

Table of contents:

  • Introduction: Touching the Victorians: A Theoretical Context
  • Chapter 1: Rape: Hand-Grabbing in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa
  • Chapter 2: Attraction: Reciprocal Touch in the Conduct Fiction of Fanny Burney and Jane Austen
  • Chapter 3: Desire: Transgressing Handshake Etiquette in Jane Eyre and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
  • Chapter 4: Sexuality: The Tactile Erotics of Gloved and Ungloved Touch
  • Chapter 5: Orientation: Queer Touch, Proximity, and Erotic Potential
  • Epilogue: Touching Ourselves: A Neo-Victorian Case Study

About the Author:

Kimberly Cox is Assistant Professor ​of English at Chadron State College, where she teaches courses in British literature, gender and sexuality, multiethnic literature, literary theory, and composition. She received her PhD in Victorian literature and her graduate certificate in women’s and gender studies from Stony Brook University. She served as managing editor of Victorian Literature and Culture from 2016 to 2018. Her work on hands, haptics, and sexuality has appeared in Victorian NetworkVictorians: Journal of Culture and Literature, ​Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies,the journal for which she recently coedited the special issue "'Teaching to Transgress' in the Emergency Remote Classroom."  

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