Pearl Brilmyer is Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Texas at Austin and has previously taught the University of Oregon, New York University, Pratt Institute, and the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.

Pearl’s work lies at the intersection of the history of philosophy, science, and literature with a focus on 19th-century England. Her current book project concerns the philosophical implications of the disarticulation of character from plot at the end of the nineteenth century. Other research interests include: theories of will and drive in 19th-century German philosophy, questions of temporality in feminist and queer theory, and materialisms old and new. She has recently published in PMLA and Representations, and she is currently editing a special issue of GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies entitled “The Ontology of the Couple” with Filippo Trentin and Zairong Xiang. Her work has previously been supported by the DAAD and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.

The Color of Lichen:
Environmental Realism from Eliot to Schreiner

ICI Affiliated Project 2018-19

During the final years of the nineteenth century in England, realism began to peel away from the novel form that gave rise to it. Foundational Victorian realists such as George Eliot and Thomas Hardy increasingly distanced themselves from the conventions of mid-century popular fiction and its emphasis on plot, and a new generation of women realists shifted their focus from the temporal teleology of Bildung to the diffuse and cyclical spatiality of environment. This project traces the rise of a “new realism” at the century’s end, showing how English authors from 1870 to the 1920 cultivated an environmentally attuned “science of character” that elucidated the physical processes, practices, through which character materializes.

Highlighting the significant role of women and feminist writers in transforming the subject of realist fiction, I show how ‘character’ at the fin de siècle came to name not a hidden or buried kernel of personality, but an observable set of qualities emergent through ecological interactions between bodies. In so doing, I challenge the historical alignment of realism with scientific ideals of objectivity, bodily abnegation, and self-restraint, demonstrating how late Victorian realists such as Eliot, Hardy, and “New Woman” novelists like Olive Schreiner refigured the relationship between the observer and the world she observed as intimate and connected, rather than distanced and alienated.

The Intimate Pulse of Reality:
Sciences of Character in Fiction and Philosophy, 1870-1920

ICI Project 2014-16

This project tracks a series of literary interventions into scientific debates of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, showing how the realist novel generated new techniques of description in response to philosophical problems of agency, materiality, and embodiment. In close conversation with developments in the sciences, writers such as George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Olive Schreiner portrayed human agency as contiguous with, rather than opposed to, the pulsations of the natural world. The human, for these realist authors, was not a privileged being, nor even a discrete entity, but rather a node in a web of interconnected life forms.

Focusing on works of English fiction published between 1870-1920, I argue that the historical convergence of a British materialist science and a vitalistic Continental natural philosophy led to the rise of what I call a “dynamic realism,” a realism attentive to the dynamic forces productive of character. Through the literary figure of character, I argue, turn-of-the-century realists explored what it meant to be an embodied subject, how qualities in organisms emerge and develop, and the relationship between nature and culture more broadly.

Selected Publications


‘Darwinian Feminisms.’ Gender: Matter, edited by Stacy Alaimo, Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks, Macmillan Reference USA, 2017, pp. 19-34.

‘Durations of Presents Past: Ruskin and the Accretive Quality of Time.’ Victorian Studies, vol. 59, no. 1, 2016, pp. 94-7.

‘Impassioned Objectivity: Nietzsche, Hardy, and the Science of Fiction.’ V21, special issue of b2o: boundary 2 online, vol. 1, no. 2, 2016.

‘Plasticity, Form, and the Matter of Character in Middlemarch.’ Representations vol. 130, no. 1, 2015, pp. 60-83.