Dickens, China and Tea: Commodity Conversations and the Re-conception of National Identity between 1848 – 1870
Lewis-Bill, Hannah Ruth Kathleen
Date: 29 January 2015
University of Exeter
PhD in English
Between 1848 – 1870 Dickens’s novels became increasingly outward looking towards transnational spaces. Dickens’s growing interest in China and Chinese commodities such as tea can be seen in his novels where contemporary anxieties about a close association with China and the Chinese is identified. The fraught trading and political ...
Between 1848 – 1870 Dickens’s novels became increasingly outward looking towards transnational spaces. Dickens’s growing interest in China and Chinese commodities such as tea can be seen in his novels where contemporary anxieties about a close association with China and the Chinese is identified. The fraught trading and political relationships between Britain and China both during and after the Opium Wars and the opening of five new ports identifies this nation as one which Dickens perceived to pose a threat to British national identity. Looking at this relationship in terms of commodities, Chinese tea can therefore be a marker not only for a fetishised commodity but also as a representation of a nation. This thesis argues that Dickens’s representation of China through commodities such as tea presents a new way for British national identity to be conceptualised. Dickens’s inclusion of Chinese commodities intersects with other foreign countries that, unlike China, formed part of the British Empire. China’s independence facilitated a commercial freedom that was not available to nations that formed part of the Empire and, as a consequence, increased its commercial power. This thesis underscores some of the significant moments in Dickens’s novels from 1848 -1870 to reveal a commodity dialogue between China and Britain which moves beyond the page and reflects an increasingly interconnected world which was both assimilated and ostracised. This provides a new understanding of Britain that, far from establishing its commercial autonomy, shows how it became increasingly reliant on China and the conversations that these commodities contribute to an understanding of Dickens’s world. The thesis considers the productive readings of China in Dickens’s fiction and the importance of geopolitical commodities in forming an understanding of nation and nationality, identity and culture, and Britain and Britishness through trade.
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