From Cabinets of Curiosities to Exhibitions: Victorian Curiosity, Curiousness, and Curious Things in Charlotte Brontë

Han-Ying Liu

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis intends to answers these questions: What did “curiosity” mean in the nineteenth century, and how do Charlotte Brontë’s four major works represent such curiosity? How were women looked at, formulated, and situated under the nineteenth-century curious gaze?
In order to answer these questions, this thesis examines Brontë’s works by juxtaposing them with nineteenth-century exhibitions. Four chapters are thus dedicated to this study: in each a type of exhibition is contemplated, and in each the definition of “curiosity” is defined through the discussions of boundary-breaking. The first chapter discusses the metaphors of “cabinets of curiosities” throughout Brontë’s texts. The most intimate and enclosed spaces occupied by women and / or their objects—attics, desks, drawers, lockets—are searched in order to reveal the secret relationship between Brontë’s heroines and the objects they have hidden away, especially the souvenirs. From cabinets of curiosities the thesis moves to another space in which the mechanism of curiosity and display takes place—the garden. The second chapter thus discusses the supposed antithesis between the innocent and the experienced, between the Power of Nature and the Power of Man, by reading the garden imagery in Brontë’s works along with nineteenth-century pleasure gardens and the Wardian case. The imagery of Eve is also taken into consideration to discuss the concept of innocence. In the third chapter, metaphors of waxworks and the Pygmalion myth are applied to discuss the image of women’s bodies in Brontë’s texts, and the boundary between the living body and the non-living statue is seen as blurred. In the final chapter, dolls’ houses and their metaphors in Brontë’s works are examined in order to explicate Brontë’s concept of “home,” and the dolls’ house thus poses a question on the relationships between the interior and the exterior, the gigantic and the miniature, and the domestic and the public spaces.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Gilmartin, Sophie, Supervisor
Award date1 May 2012
Publication statusUnpublished - Apr 2012


  • Brontë
  • curiosity
  • nineteenth-century
  • Victorian
  • cabinet of curiosity
  • garden
  • Eden
  • waxwork
  • dolls' house
  • pygmalion
  • Wardian case
  • female body

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