Book Project

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“Marriage of Her Royal Highness, the Princess Royal, and her Bridesmaids”

Quantified Lives: My book project, Quantified Lives: Nineteenth-Century British Poetry and the Mathematics of Social Totality, identifies the formal and thematic ways that nineteenth-century British poetry is concerned with counting as social control. The present fascination with quantification among critics such as Audrey Jaffe, Alex Woloch, Emily Steinlight, and Jesse Rosenthal has raised questions about norms, the individual within the mass, and the narratological implications of numbers. My project builds on such work by investigating the relations between nineteenth-century British poetry, mathematics, and the marital discourse.  For instance, the Victorian era witnessed a debate about the “perfect unity” of marriage, a discourse emphasizing the social calculus of “two become one.” In a society with an acknowledged obsession with such social math, how was one to start counting if the difference between one and two remained abstract? Moreover, how does one develop an understanding of ones and twos, of counting and of sequences, in the absence of formal training beyond basic arithmetic? And how might a poet do so? Quantified Lives develops an account of social numeracy in women’s poetry. Women poets, I claim, were developing numeracy through their poetry, numerating in their poetry, and responding to the ways that women were enumerated in nineteenth-century society. I argue that the most prominent women poets of the era, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Augusta Webster, and Michael Field (a.k.a., Edith Cooper and Katherine Bradley), were concerned with the problem of pushing people together too closely, and they questioned idealized forms of wholeness available to them, such as marriage. Poetry involves its own kinds of quantification—metrical and rhyming patterns—and the women poets in my study used such “numbers” and “measures” to theorize social counting as political and social control. Highlighting the relationships between poetry and mathematics, this book contributes to current efforts across disciplines to theorize and historicize the emergence of quantifying methods, reorienting our attention to nineteenth-century poetry as a critical source of social counting and statistical commentary.

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