Talia Schaffer is a professor of English at Queens College CUNY and the Graduate Center CUNY. In 2018-2019 I was a Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Fellow at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University.
My forthcoming book, Communities of Care: The Social Ethics of Victorian Fiction (Princeton UP, 2021), addresses the feminist philosophy of ethics of care as a promising theory for reading nineteenth-century character, while Victorian fictions offer useful case studies of care before the instantiation of the modern medical paradigm.
I’m interested in the way that fictional communities, in the work of Austen, Dickens, Eliot, and the Brontës, suggest new ways to think about care relations. For instance, care is performative – one can offer care without really caring – a dynamic that I argue is liberatory to Daniel Deronda, but devastating to Lucy Snowe. Similarly, care is affiliative; anyone can offer it, not just people who are biologically related. This dynamic allows fiction to depict nontraditional families and same-sex couples, but also to show (as in The Wings of the Dove) how a cabal of conspirators can take advantage of care’s social structures. The care dynamic works in a kind of perpetual present, a temporal realignment that, I argue, has intriguing ramifications for reimagining the literary tradition as a cooperative network outside of chronological structures. What happens, I ask, if we imagine our own writing and teaching and service according to an ethics of care? Can research be a way of invoking a care community? Should we try to make our seminars into communities of care? You can see a talk I gave from the new book here.
I am also planning a book on feminism and the archive. Anglo-American feminism, from the late 1970s through the 1990s, was conceptualized as a recovery project in which neglected works of women’s writing would literally be salvaged from obscurity. In the era of digitized archives, what happens to this core mission of academic feminism? This book project starts with a history of feminist research, but locates it in the context of changing views of work, the rise of professionalism and the growth of the information economy, from the nineteenth century onwards.
My most recent book is Romance’s Rival: Familiar Marriage in Victorian Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2016), which won the NAVSA Best Book Prize for 2016 and was chosen as one of Choice‘s Outstanding Academic Books of 2016. Romance’s Rival argues that the marriage plot worked through anxieties about the emergence of romantic marriage by putting a ‘familiar’ suitor (a trusted neighbor, cousin, etc) into competition with a ‘romantic’ suitor (a dashing but perhaps untrustworthy stranger). In deciding whom to marry, the woman was also deciding whether to pursue a life of personal pleasure or continued enmeshment in her existing social networks, whether to announce herself a liberal agent or a relational being. The marital decision was, therefore, a larger decision about the woman’s own identity. Romance’s Rival explores the development of female subjectivity from the seventeenth through the twentieth century and rewrites the history of the novel, prioritizing female agency and preferences. It looks at several varieties of familiar marriage: marrying a neighbor, a cousin, a disabled man, and a colleague, and it asks why women might genuinely have preferred such unions to marriages based on romantic pleasure.
I have also written Novel Craft: Victorian Domestic Handicraft and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (2011); The Forgotten Female Aesthetes; Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England (2001); co-editor with Kathy A. Psomiades of Women and British Aestheticism (1999); editor of Lucas Malet’s 1901 novel, The History of Sir Richard Calmady (2003); and editor of Literature and Culture at the Fin de Siècle (2006). I have published widely on Victorian familial and marital norms, disability studies, noncanonical women writers, material culture, popular fiction, aestheticism, and late-Victorian texts.