Impossible Purities

Blackness, Femininity, and Victorian Culture

Impossible Purities

Book Pages: 272 Illustrations: 13 b&w photographs Published: November 1998

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, Gender and Sexuality, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism

Using black feminist theory and African American studies to read Victorian culture, Impossible Purities looks at the construction of “Englishness” as white, masculine, and pure and “Americanness” as black, feminine, and impure. Brody’s readings of Victorian novels, plays, paintings, and science fiction reveal the impossibility of purity and the inevitability of hybridity in representations of ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and race. She amasses a considerable amount of evidence to show that Victorian culture was bound inextricably to various forms and figures of blackness.
Opening with a reading of Daniel Defoe’s “A True-Born Englishman,” which posits the mixed origins of English identity, Brody goes on to analyze mulattas typified by Rhoda Swartz in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, whose mixed-race status reveals the “unseemly origins of English imperial power.” Examining Victorian stage productions from blackface minstrel shows to performances of The Octoroon and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she explains how such productions depended upon feminized, “black” figures in order to reproduce Englishmen as masculine white subjects. She also discusses H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau in the context of debates about the “new woman,” slavery, and fears of the monstrous degeneration of English gentleman. Impossible Purities concludes with a discussion of Bram Stoker’s novella, “The Lair of the White Worm,” which brings together the book’s concerns with changing racial representations on both sides of the Atlantic.
This book will be of interest to scholars in Victorian studies, literary theory, African American studies, and cultural criticism.


Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity, and Victorian Culture does . . . offer some fresh insights and deserves attention both for the variety of literary texts it uses and for the way Brody’s analysis builds on rather than merely replicates those of her predecessors. A well-produced book with apt and interesting illustrations, its argument, in a field prone to jargon, is generally clear and readable, and it should be accessible to both academics and advanced undergraduates. . . . It is an intelligent and suggestive collection of essays on a topic of considerable current interest.” — H. L. Malchow, Modern Philology

Impossible Purities is an ambitious critical study that brings to bear some of the latest theories of race and nationality on a wide variety of Victorian texts, including well-known novels, practically unknown dramas, sculpture, illustrations, and minstrel songs. . . . Brody’s is a unique and gutsy critical intervention. Its sweep is wide and its use of theory is eclectic and imaginative.” — Donald E. Hall, Novel

“[An] eloquent inquiry into the construction of Englishness in Victorian culture.” — Becky Hall, History Workshop Journal

“[B]reathtakingly interdisciplinary and wide-ranging in a way that we need if we are going to really open up this field of British black Victorian studies.” — Audrey Fisch, Black British Studies in the Victorian Period

“Brody brings together and illuminates literary and visual texts of high and popular culture. The scholarship is thorough; notes and bibliography are rich.” — Choice

“Brody’s prologue, four chapters, and epilogue examine an array of impressively diverse texts and cultural artifacts, from Thackerey’s Vanity Fair to H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, from the cultural force of minstrelsy in England to racial iconography and the influences of Darwinian thought.” — Lindon Barrett, American Literature

“Jennifer DeVere Brody’s innovative and insightful cultural study delivers a compelling read . . . . The fresh connections Brody makes and the new tests she brings to light make Impossible Purities a worthy and welcome addition to postcolonial studies.” — Rebecca Weaver, Interventions

“Like fusion food, criticism today brings together new and zesty combinations. As its title suggests, Jennifer DeVere Brody’s Impossible Purities is shaped by the recent creolizaiton of methodologies issuing from a host of fields, a virtual smorgasbord of academic fares. . . . Brody has produced a book that represents a genuine breakthrough: the incursion of engendered African-American perspectives into Victorian studies is a welcome and timely event.” — Susan Gubar, Victorian Studies

“There can be little question that Jennifer Brody’s first book makes a significant contribution to studies of race in nineteenth-century Britain. She often finds surprising intersections between cultural phenomena as she applies her own hybrid, theoretical perspective to an impressive range of sources. . . .” — Kelly Searsmith, Science Fiction Studies

Impossible Purities is a tour de force text that is certain to upset and ‘repopulate’ the canons of British, American, and African-American literary and cultural studies, never again allowing us to treat them as discrete categories. This is stunning, refreshingly original work, full of ingenious insights, strangely provocative pairings, and revealing ‘hybridities,’ all passionately expressed in beautifully lucid—someteimes even lyrical—prose replete with ‘wish-I’d-said-that’ turns of phrase.” — Ann DuCille, author of Skin Trade

“Full of pathbreaking insights, Impossible Purities is a fascinating investigation into the performativity of race adn the complex and contradictory politics of hybridity.” — Hazel Carby, author of Race Men

“Jennifer Brody is a brilliant scholar who displays a mastery of a dazzling range of subjects. Impossible Purities seems certain to transform our understanding of nineteenth-century literature in significant and lasting ways.” — George Lipsitz, author of The Possessive Investment in Whiteness


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