Talia Schaffer is a professor of English at Queens College CUNY and the Graduate Center CUNY.
My new book, Communities of Care: The Social Ethics of Victorian Fiction (Princeton UP, 2021), uses the feminist philosophy of ethics of care as a way of understanding Victorian social relations. I’m interested in how caregiving suggests alternative ideas of character in the 19th century novel (thinking about how service work troubles the notion of the deep individual, for instance), and I explore what we can learn about care communities by looking at case studies that predated modern professional medical care. I look at Austen, Dickens, Eliot, the Brontës, James, Yonge, and I think about care’s temporality, performativity, discursivity, and affiliation. I define care as “meeting another’s need,” and, crucially, see it as an action rather than a feeling – a new way of theorizing care that acknowledges its roots in African American extended family networks and queer families of choice, and that suggests ways we can mobilize it today.. What happens, I ask, if we imagine our academic lives according to an ethics of care? How might we reimagine the literary tradition in terms of care? You can see a talk I gave from the new book here. I wrote much of it as a Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Fellow at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University in 2018-2019
My next book will look at feminism and the archive. Starting in the 1970s, Victorianist feminist criticism prioritized salvaging neglected works of women’s writing. I want to explore the aftereffects of that recovery agenda. How has it tacitly shaped the past 50 years of Victorianist feminist criticism, and what might be other ways of thinking about feminist work for the 21st century? To find paths not taken, I go back to a foundational work of 1897, Women Novelists of Queen Victoria’s Reign, and cast ahead to new forms of criticism commensurate to an era of digitized archives and trans identity. Where Elaine Showalter argued for a tripartite division of female, feminine, and feminist authors in the 19th century, I hope to make a case for the ‘feminized’ instead, aiming to analyze gendered constructs wherever they appear, instead of casting ourselves as heroic rescuers or assessors of worth.
My previous 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.