Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Nancy Yousef

Committee Members

Talia Schaffer

Alexander Schlutz

Alan Vardy

Subject Categories

Literature in English, British Isles


music, sound studies, aesthetics, acoustics, novels, feminism


Sound Minds: Women’s Novels, Vibrational Experience, and the Listening Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Britain traces nineteenth-century evolutions of the concept of auditory subjecthood and brings narrative representations of audition and utterance in novels written by Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot to bear on sound studies, acoustic research, and adjacent philosophies of musical aesthetics. Between Ernst Chladni’s groundbreaking publications on acoustic science in 1787 and 1802 and Hermann von Helmholtz’s enormously influential study of sound waves and musical theory, On the Sensations of Tone: As a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music (1862), continental Europe and Britain saw proliferating interest in epistemologies of sound vibration. Since then, sound studies theorists have worked to understand the relationship between sonic physiology and long-standing aesthetic assumptions about the singular power of music. By considering literature of the period as a venue for the exploration of how formal aesthetic boundaries between music, nonmusical sound, and noise were blurred even while contemporaneous science seemed to claim that they were never sharper or more clearly explicable, this dissertation positions women novelists as key interlocutors in nineteenth-century discourses concerning sound. The range of aural encounters represented in their novelistic oeuvres, I contend, illustrates how an awareness of the corporeal properties of sound vibration might coalesce with popular abstractions concerning music’s powerful influence on the body and the mind, thus presciently exploring the significance of sound’s ubiquity in everyday experience and its bearing on psychophysical interiority. In this way, I examine audition as primary to each novelist’s interest in subject formation.

Sound Minds diverges from familiar understandings of socially delimited contexts for listening and women’s musicianship to consider aurality as a mode through which literary narratives might explore complex relationships between sensory experience, cognition, and feeling. Chapter 1 counters popular readings that frame female musical ‘accomplishment’ in Jane Austen’s novels as compulsory participation in bourgeois consumption and the marriage market, arguing instead that Austen demonstrates how musicianship could create a space in which women characters especially might claim access to ontological knowledge of self as well as exercise expressive, intellectual and aesthetic agency. Broadening the acoustic field in Austen’s novels to nonmusical sound and ambient noise, chapter one further asks how readings of nineteenth-century music culture and less historically tethered phenomenologies of sound might be bridged by exploring the roles played by hearing and utterance in the formation of self-reflexive subjectivity and interpersonal intimacy. Chapter two argues that in Charlotte Brontë’s configuration of an imaginatively active “inward ear” (Jane Eyre) that is both cerebral and profoundly embodied, she conceives of sonic vibration as an ambiguously material sensation during transformative episodes of psychological development. While Brontë’s interest in the visual has been well-canvassed, this chapter examines how she also centers aurality, using it to articulate fine distinctions between moments in which her heroines feel firmly in possession of themselves and those in which they are emphatically subject to circumstance. Chapter three examines George Eliot’s use of enthralling vibrational encounters to draw out complex ambiguities in certain characters’ impulses. Building on substantial scholarship establishing Eliot’s awareness of acoustic science, I argue that for Eliot, listening operates at an intersection between our desiring affective selves, our moral and intellectual consciences, and our social situatedness. Altogether, Sound Minds centers a group that has received particular kinds of ear training while remaining largely excluded from traditional accounts of influence in musical aesthetic history, and offers a literary prehistory for recent theorizations of aural encounter in the burgeoning field of sound studies.

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