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Probing the Victorian Corpus: Health Humanities Approaches to 19th-Century Fiction

Synapsis Writers // MLA Conference, January 3, 2019 

“What have the health humanities offered 19th-century literary studies?” In January, a group of Synapsis writers took up this call with great zest at the MLA Conference in Chicago, where they spoke on the inaugural panel sponsored by our journal. As these panel proceedings reveal, our speakers locate new ways of reading Victorian prose fiction through developments in medicine and health.

While scholars have articulated some of the ways in which medicine influenced Victorian literature –- from brain science (Nicholas Dames, Anne Stiles) to hysteria (Elaine Showalter) to the professionalized doctor (Tabitha Sparks) to the case history (Jason Tougaw, Meegan Kennedy) — this panel proposed something new: that medical discovery shaped Victorian fiction not just in themes and motifs, but also in formalist and theoretical innovations. By tracing how epidemiology, obstetrics and gynecology, anesthesia, and colonial medicine informed both canonical novels by Brontë, Dickens, Eliot and Trollope, as well as lesser-known literary works, our speakers showed how Victorian writing indexes a cross-disciplinary interchange that, we proposed, shapes the field of health humanities that is emerging today. Each of the papers, which are summarized below, raised important questions not just for studies of Victorian literature, but also for methods in the health humanities.

Arden Hegele, Columbia University, Synapsis co-editor.

Anna Fenton-Hathaway (Northwestern University): “Statistical Panic, Redundant Women, and the Aging Novelist”

“Why Are Women Redundant?” asked businessman-turned-essayist W. R. Greg in an 1862 article in the National Review. The question was ostensibly based on the data of the 1851 and 1861 British Censuses, both of which had shown that women outnumbered men in England and Wales by about half a million. Prominent feminists including Frances Power Cobbe and Jessie Boucherett also weighed in on this numerical imbalance, unsurprisingly departing from Greg in how they defined the problem (as women’s poverty, not women’s singleness) and in their proffered solutions (gainful employment in the country, not emigration in search of husbands).

The Victorian concept of female “redundancy” might be seen to intersect with contemporary health humanities in staging the tension between a person’s utility and their innate, individual worth; or even in how Greg and others used population data to define population health, in that he called the “enormous and increasing number of single women in the nation … indicative of an unwholesome social state” and both “productive and prognostic of much wretchedness and wrong.” (This is a different understanding of the term than its current incarnation, to be sure, but one not without resonance.) For me, though, the most powerful connection is in how “redundant women” themselves responded to being, in the words of philosopher Ian Hacking, made up.

Here is the first line of Mary Taylor’s response to Greg in the Victoria Magazine: “It gives a curious feeling to a person of the wrong sex to hear for the first time the question—why are women redundant?” Taylor is responding here to a culturally and historically specific (and insulting) form of categorization. Yet her “curious feeling” remark captures a moment that has become a largely unacknowledged rite of passage in societies that depend on statistics to understand the present and probability to understand the future. It freezes in time a moment that many of us probably can’t even recall: the first time it was suggested that we understand ourselves and our future through the lens of probability, with our sights trained on risk.

Kathleen Woodward’s 2009 Statistical Panic interrogates this very self-understanding, exploring the legacy of the statistical production of deviance that Hacking demonstrated to be an outgrowth of the rise of statistics across the nineteenth century. As Woodward argues persuasively, what was once reserved for subgroups is now applied to all of us via risk-based probabilities: to read the news or watch tv or go to school or to the doctor’s office is to conceive of oneself as being “in a state of risk, a state that at some inevitable future time will be fulfilled as a state of disease or death.” Woodward calls this “the quantitative language of our global capitalist public culture […—]one that we have all internalized.” Returning to Taylor’s and other forays into the “redundant women” debate, I argue, gets us back to a time before this internalization and reveals a number of reactions—rage, amused detachment, savage indictment of the category, embrace of a shared identity with those similarly categorized—that we might usefully enlist today.

Unlike female “redundancy,” of course, our contemporary low-grade anxiety is not so pointed; it is more miasma than germ. There is another modern parallel, however, that bridges personal experience and population health and still remains contested, not-quite-“made up.” Sometimes it is treated like Greg treats “redundant women,” as an external epidemic; at other times it is Woodward’s impending “state of disease,” a personal fate to be avoided at all costs. The parallel is aging, and it is one that novels such as Taylor’s Miss Miles (1890) and Anthony Trollope’s The Fixed Period (1882) explore in depth and also help situate in relation to “redundancy.”   

Works Cited

Greg, W. R. “Why Are Women Redundant?” National Review (April 1862): 434–60.

Hacking, Ian. “Making Up People.” In Beyond the Body Proper: Reading the Anthropological in Material Life, edited by Margaret M. Lock and Judith Farquhar, 150–63. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2007.

Taylor, Mary. “Redundant Women.” In First Duty of Women: A Series of Articles Reprinted from The Victoria Magazine, 1865–1870, 25–46. London: Emily Faithfull, Victoria Press, 1870.

Woodward, Kathleen. Statistical Panic: A Cultural Politics and Poetics of the Emotions. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2009.

Livia Arndal Woods (Trinity College): “Somatic Reading and Pregnancy in the Victorian Novel”

Somatic reading is a method that helps me read representations of pregnancy in the Victorian novel through and also beyond nineteenth-century medical developments. A strong historicist tradition among Victorianist literary scholars has tended to position representations of bodies in the context of the rise of medicine occurring over the long nineteenth century. This tendency undergirds an inclination toward diagnostic methods for the analysis of Victorian literary representations of bodies, diagnostic reading methods in which the scholar often approximates the authority of the doctor and reads symptoms for their deeper significance. These contexts and methods are important, but my hope is that somatic reading can afford more access to thinking about literary representations of bodies in conversation with the subjective messiness of embodiment as it is often experienced.

Pregnancy – like bodies in general – disturbs tidy notions of surface and depth, distance and closeness. This disruption, coupled with the sexual reticence of Victorian literature, positions pregnancy in particularly interesting relationship to debates in literary studies about our critical practices: in the event that we accept the notion that we are caught up in a “hermeneutics of suspicion” and, in the event that we are interested in the degree to which we can resist that, how then might we read fictional depictions of pregnancies that are undeniably there but that resist articulation?

Somatic Reading allows us to read through the nineteenth-century medical developments in obstetric science (to decode what’s going on with the help of medical characters, for example, or to apply now-familiar timelines of conception and gestation to fictional representations of characters who would likely – if they were real people – have thought about reproduction in different terms) and then use that reading to get beyond the medical and toward a fictional play with unknowable embodied experiences that make up so much of the texture of life as it is lived. This isn’t about divorcing our methods for reading bodies from medicine, but rather about acknowledging medicine and the possibilities of diagnosis as common frameworks for understanding the somatic experiences that precede and so easily overflow our ways of knowing them. Somatic reading is one way of creating a little space for the subjective and unknown in what we do as scholars, space within the articulable for acknowledging the ever-present workings of the inarticulable and ineffable.

For example, in George Eliot’s 1872 Middlemarch, Rosamond Lydgate loses her first pregnancy and the reader is positioned to accept the medical diagnosis of her husband, Dr. Tertius Lydgate – namely that the miscarriage was brought on by Rosamond’s riding a horse against his advice. Rosamond, however, articulates an alternative interpretation: “in all future conversation on the subject [Rosamond]…was mildly certain that the ride had made no difference, and that if she had stayed at home the same symptoms would have come on and would have ended in the same way, because she had felt something like them before” (362). This is an incredibly unusual moment in Victorian literature because Rosamond is speaking directly about an internal experience of pregnancy, an experience not pinned down by precise language. Somatic reading uses authoritative ways of knowing pregnancy as check-points into unknowing bodies as mysterious systems that are idiosyncratically experienced; we need Dr. Tertius Lydgate’s medicalized perspective on his wife’s pregnancy to access this narrative, but that access cannot do more than point to a mysterious bodily experience. If we take that mysterious bodily experience seriously, however, we may have to reconsider our judgements about a character like Rosamond. I hope that somatic reading emphasizes haptic epistemologies that can unsettle familiar interpretations of character, plot, form, and the relationship between medicine and literature.

Travis Chi Wing Lau (University of Texas at Austin): “A Cripistemology of Victorian Pain”

The impulse to eliminate or suspend pain demands rethinking, especially in the face of the opioid epidemic. Such reductive thinking about pain has been costly: those suffering from chronic pain frequently find themselves either ignored by medical professionals or overmedicated to the point of dependency. Disabled people have historically been figured as being afflicted by both psychic and somatic pain—states of abjection that are often exceed or destroy language’s ability to represent them. Disabled bodies in pain are often seen as localized cases of “individual misfortune rather than a social or political identity, and pain as private suffering rather than socially produced condition” (Holmes 134). Disability studies and pain studies have emphasized that living with disability does not necessarily entail pain, nor does pain necessarily have to be experienced as part of a disability or a disability itself.

Margaret Price has called for a “need to think and talk more carefully about pain—not in order to overcome it, but in order to overcome the many oppressions that attempt to annihilate us for feeling pain.” This project draws on my own poetic engagements with my scoliosis-related disability and chronic pain to contribute to what Alyson Patsavas has called a “cripistemology of pain”: a way of knowing “that permit[s] us to think pain otherwise, to produce painful new knowledge, but also to construct analyses about pain that are less painful, and less dangerous to those of us in pain, and, in doing so, to re-imagine our (shared, pained) futures” (116). Can there be a carefully historicized standpoint theory (or to use Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s reformulation of this term, sitpoint theory) of pain that can more compassionately and justly address pain’s queer chronicities while also enabling new forms of care and interdependence?

The common temporal framing applied to disability is what Alison Kafer calls “curative time,” or a linear progress narrative toward the amelioration, cure, or elimination of disability. The dominance of this narrative in medicine has contributed to “an understanding of disability that not only expects and assumes intervention but also cannot imagine or comprehend anything other than intervention” (27). Especially as Social Darwinism fed into eugenic arguments for the institutionalization and “correction” of the disabled, disabled bodies in pain are always understood to be “out of time,” “out of sync with time–deviations in the progress narrative toward cure” (27). Disability instead inhabits crip time: a temporality that refuses the expectations of able-bodiedness in favor of the “episodic, not linear, a matter of intensities, sensations, and situations, not illness and cure” (135).

Mid-century Victorian experiments with nitrous oxide and ether revolutionized surgical practice and what pain signified. Anesthesia promised to manage or even annihilate pain all together even beyond the medical theater. I am interested in how Victorian writers resisted the curative narrative of mainstream medicine by inhabiting, describing, and ultimately reimagining the queer temporalities of pain. What might the feverish time of Esther Summerson’s smallpox suggest about the recursive, folding nature of crip time? Do the autobiographical accounts of Harriet Martineau or William Dodd and the novelistic representations of bodies in pain by Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens gesture to unexpected crip futurities?

I follow the lead of Rachel Ablow who recently historicized the strange place of pain in nineteenth-century British culture. The secularization of pain opens it up as potentially random, idiosyncratic, or even pointless category of experience. But rather than making it inaccessible, literature and philosophy offered the very means by which pain could be made shareable. Ablow uses anthropologist Veena Das’ concept of “transactions” to understand the dynamic of sufferers and their interlocutors co-producing pain as a category, an embodiment, a thing with a social life. This transactional method seems to be where a disability intervention might emerge: how might pain’s crip time be intercorporeal, intersubjective?

Works Cited

Rachel Ablow. Victorian Pain. Princeton: Princeton UP, 20-1.

Martha Stoddard Holmes, “Pain.” Keywords for Disability Studies. Eds. Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss, and David Serlin. New York: NYU Press, 2015. 133-4.

Merri Lisa Johnson and Robert McRuer. “Cripistemologies: Introduction.” Journal of Literary & Critical Disability Studies. 8.2 (2014): 127-147.

Alison Kafer. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 2013.

Alyson Patsavas. “Recovering a Cripistemology of Pain: Leaky Bodies, Connective Tissue, and Feeling Discourse.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies. 8.2 (2014): 203-218.

Margaret Price. “Desiring Pain, Desiring Distress: Meditations on Disabled Bodymind.” Debilitating Queerness. DC Queer Studies. College Park, MD. 5 April 2013. Plenary Address.

Elaine Scarry. The Body in Pain. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985.

Jessica Kirwan (University of Florida): “Reimagining the Queer (After)Life of James Barry”

Dr. James Barry, the Victorian colonial surgeon, has fascinated Britons since his death in 1865 when a maid attending to his corpse told the media he was a woman. Although he lived as a man and left little evidence to suggest he was assigned female at birth, Barry’s biography has been frequently used to inform discussions of pioneering women in medicine, suggesting he cross-dressed to pursue a career unattainable to women at the time. In my talk, I discussed literature that has contributed to this misperception to help elucidate why it has persisted.

In 1865, Charles Dickens published, “A Mystery Still,” a brief account of Barry’s experiences in South Africa and his death. In it, Dickens characterizes Barry through negation, as the sum of what is missing: he lacks official birth records, military rankings, height and strength, and the money necessary to keep up appearances. Barry is “smartish,” “small,” and “ill-proportioned” (Dickens 492). “He made a position for himself” among the bourgeois purportedly not because of financial acumen but trickery. In Col. Rogers’s novel, A Modern Sphinx, published in 1881, James Barry appears as Dr. Fitzjames, an army surgeon described as “strange,” “no bigger than a half-starved schoolboy,” having a “cadaverous countenance and puny frame,” and “incapable of exertion” (Rogers 12). As in Dickens’s essay, the fictional Barry gradually physically diminishes. The novel concludes with Barry confessing that he is actually a woman named Jessie Pownall and that she dressed as a man to earn a living to support her daughter (in keeping with the popular Barry mythology that includes an abandoned child).

There is decisiveness in how these writers have read Barry’s body because preserving a limited understanding of men’s and women’s contributions to medicine seems to depend on it. In this sense, “the transgender body confirms the enduring power of the binary gender system” (Halberstam 96). The narratives that paint Barry as a pioneering woman reinforce gender stereotypes and place the trans biography within a neoliberal capitalist mythos that relies on a clearly delineated gender binary. As Halberstam argues, masculinity as performance “presents a threat not only to male masculinity in general but particularly to notions of the authenticity of bourgeois manhood” (Halberstam 70). To remember Barry as a pioneering woman rather than a man who helped broaden Victorian perceptions of masculinity serves to stabilize cultural associations of the standard man as large, intellectually superior, and heterosexual while contributing to a history of misrepresentations of women as inherently physically and intellectually inferior, unstable, maternal, and, again, heterosexual (evidenced by Barry’s scandalous affair with Lord Charles Somerset). In these stories, Barry’s death confirmed his femininity to explain his deviance from masculinity. By ceasing to discuss James Barry as a cross-dressing woman physician, however, his biography might gesture towards avenues that describe historical non-heteronormative experiences in ways that complicate gender stereotypes rather than as narratives meant to ease heterosexual anxieties about the fluidity of gender and the uncertainty of gender binaries.  

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. “A Mystery Still.” All the Year Round 18 May 1867:492-5. Print original. Web. 13 December 2015.

Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time & Place. New York and London: New York University Press, 2005. Print.

Rogers, Ebenezer. A Modern Sphinx. 1881.]

Arden Hegele (Columbia University): Response

Each of these papers offered a fresh perspective on the transhistorical value of Victorian intersections between medicine and literature.

Anna Fenton-Hathaway revealed how women’s outnumbering of men in mid-Victorian England produced a crisis in epidemiology that resulted in a new concern about “redundancy,” which in turn made its way into the novel. The epidemiological notion of “statistical panic” became a formalist strategy of representation, and, through the reappropriation of a notion of “excessiveness,” a technique of feminist resistance. This study might prompt us to ask: what is the the parallel between the Victorian statistical panic about marital status that produced the idea of “female redundancy” and explicitly medical contemporary forms of statistical panic about women—for instance, the statistic that 1 in 5 American women will die of cancer? Are the two forms of “epidemic” close enough to warrant comparison? And is “resistance” the best way to address statistical panic?

Livia Arndal Woods proposed a different approach to the literary interpretation of biodata. Rather than seeing bodies as walking statistics, she showed how readers might instead consider bodies as mysterious systems that we experience idiosyncratically—“somatic reading,” a methodology that unsettles seemingly familiar narratives. For Woods, Victorian pregnancy is the key site for developing this methodology. We might wonder: does somatic reading have the potential to work as a cross-disciplinary formalism? Can it move beyond the context of literary representations of Victorian pregnancy to the present day, and perhaps even to the practice of medical interpretation?

Travis Chi Wing Lau read the body in a different way, finding in mid-Victorian experiments in anesthesia new possibilities for historicizing queer chronicities of psychic and somatic pain as a form of “crip time,” in light of a eugenicist discourse that framed disabled bodies as “out of time.” Lau’s innovation here was to draw a link between pain and literary aesthetics, to argue that queer temporalities might serve a transhistorical purpose. Could this framework of pain and pain relief—which is necessarily grounded in Victorian literature, but informed by contemporary queer theory—work for medicine in the present day to address what seems like a Victorian zombie—the opioid crisis? Does this model have strategic portability across contexts?

Finally, Jessica Kirwan convincingly traced how the legacies of the medicalized Victorian body persist in contemporary cultural studies. Kirwan’s contribution not only offered a new characterization of the elusive figure of Dr. James Barry, but argued that imposing a heteronormative narrative both undermines the complexity of Barry’s life and obfuscates the history of women in Victorian medicine. Kirwan’s argument about the cultural gradations of the Victorian sexual economy offers a flexible paradigm of gender whose legacy persists into the present day. How might we connect Victorian medicine’s queer history to modern debates: specifically, can we discuss Barry’s possible trans subjectivity without mythologizing him to serve a political purpose in the present day? If Barry was trans, he was careful to conceal it—what prevents us from reading his biography as simply one of imperial male privilege?

Taken together, these rich papers are yet richer for the questions they provoke. They reveal the legacies of the 19th century in the health humanities today—whether in our reading practices, our perception of the queer body, or theories of affect and sensation.  Reading Victorian fiction through a medical lens, then, illuminates our own critical approaches.


Featured Image: Anon., Anatomical Female Model, from Frederick Hollick, The Origin of Life (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1902). Public Domain.

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