VPFA and NUI Study Day – Mystery and Medicine: The Dark Side of Science in Victorian Fiction
Sarah Wise, ‘Mr Gilbert’s Weird Psychological Novel’: Shirley Hall Asylum and Victorian states of mind (RD)
Sarah Wise’s opening keynote focused on Shirley Hall Asylum: Or the Memoirs of a Monomaniac, written by William Gilbert and published in 1863 (and available to twenty-first century readers at https://archive.org/details/shirleyhallasyl00gilbgoog; ODNB entry at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/10707 ). Thus far in Wise’s research, Gilbert’s text appears sui generis, and audience members were encouraged to let Wise know of any works that may be similar. Despite its standalone status, the novel’s relevance to the theme of the study day, ‘Medicine and Mystery’, was not in doubt. Conceived after Gilbert’s stay at an asylum, the novel consists of ten short stories concerning ten asylum inmates, among them a man who cannot have anyone stand to his left, and a former governess who, when she sees a soldier, becomes convinced that she is Xerxes. The text considers the nature of subjectivity, and what constitutes sanity or insanity. Gilbert’s resistance to the highly popular newspaper novel led him to produce a work based in fact, avoiding the melodramatic plot twists of sensation fiction. Factual does not equate to dull, however, as Wise described how Gilbert’s sober prose style is used to unsettling effect; as the reader follows a mundane conversation between two characters, it gradually becomes clear that at least one of the characters is obsessive, possibly delusional.
Gilbert’s text becomes a vehicle to propose that realism, rather than sensation fiction, is the correct genre for Victorian descriptions of emotional and intellectual crises, since these crises were so commonplace during the period. Indeed, Wise showed that one of the characters in Shirley Hall Asylum may be an autobiographical sketch by the author. The question at the heart of the work is, when does a person’s eccentricity turn into a condition that requires him/her to be incarcerated? Those with a penchant for Victorian writing will be familiar with the trope of overwork; it looms large here as a risk to the sanity and wellbeing of the middle-class person. Wise situated Gilbert’s book within the context of nineteenth-century medical-historical discussions on monomania, and the scandal of 1858 when four high-profile cases generated much newspaper discussion of potential wrongful incarceration in asylums.
The Q&A session demonstrated how consideration of a now lesser-read text can offer fresh perspectives to the study of the nineteenth century. Gilbert’s visits and conversations with staff and inmates suggest that the Victorian asylum was a more porous institution than may sometimes be imagined, while the gender breakdown of the characters in his novel points to the real risk of false imprisonment for Victorian men as well as Victorian women. In terms of fictional representations, the example of the incarcerated female in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White was counterpointed with that of the male victim in Charles Reade’s Hard Cash. It was mooted that Miss Havisham’s freedom to do harm to Pip and Estella allows for a reading of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations as a pro-confinement novel. This morning’s keynote whetted the audience’s appetite for more, and the rest of the study day provided it.
Parallel Session 1
Gender and Class (ET)
This panel was chaired by Eavan O’Dochartaigh from NUI Galway.
The first speaker was Sara Zadrozny, of the University of Portsmouth. Her paper, ‘Medicine and Victorian Notions of Gender’, explored the differences between the medical attention given to male and female patients in the nineteenth century, focusing particularly on the themes of vision and scrutiny. Women were generally considered to age at a faster rate than men during the Victorian period, coming into midlife sooner and considered elderly at an earlier time. Zadrozny used an extract from The Lancet to demonstrate how women were shown to have ‘aged differently’, and explored how the trope of the hourglass was used to reflect both the female shape and echo how much time the woman in question had left on earth. Miss Havisham of Charles Dickens’ 1860 novel Great Expectations, along with Miss Skewton from the author’s Dombey and Son (1847), can be read, Zadrozny argued, in conjunction with these ‘medical’ diagnoses of female aging.
Following Zadrozny was Abby Boucher from Aston University in Birmingham, who gave a talk entitled ‘Fashionable Illness: Consumerism, Medicine, and Class in the Silver Fork Novels’. Boucher introduced her paper by giving a helpful explanation of the ‘silver fork novel’ phenomenon. These ‘fashionable novels’ were extremely popular from the 1820s to 1840s, before falling from favour in the 1850s. William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848) is, Boucher suggests, generally seen as the parody which sounded the genre’s death knell.
Silver fork novels provided a literary intrigue, as often characters would be veiled caricatures of individuals from Society, and readers were invited to discern their real-life counterparts.
Several themes were explored in these texts, such as marriage reform, class, heredity, medicine and health. Sensibility, Boucher said, had fallen out of fashion by this point, but the concept’s utter pervasiveness was clear in the silver fork novels’ use of ‘delicate health’ as a marker of aristocracy.
This connection between sensibility and illness was a theme which was echoed throughout the social hierarchy, functioning as a symbol of aspiration. Hypochondria had become a bourgeois trait, and to speak of a nervous condition in the Romantic period is to allude to the class system. Boucher spoke of how this association of health and sensibility functioned in literature of the period, referencing Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Godolphin (1833), which alludes to the ‘fashionable’ trend of falling ill, and Romance and Reality, Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s 1831 novel, in which young ladies are encouraged to pray for illness to secure a romantic advantage.
In some of these novels, medicine plays the role of the villain, undoing carefully laid plans and altering a character’s plot when someone unexpectedly recovers. These novels, by discussing health and medicine in terms of material culture, positioned an aristocratic body as the ultimate luxury commodity. Reliant on middle class readership, the aristocratic authors of these novels trained those further down the social strata to emulate the physical experiences of the upper class.
The panel’s final speaker was Ruth Doherty of Trinity College Dublin, whose PhD research was supported by the Irish Research Council. Her paper, ‘“But you and I may say the truth”: Reproduction and Infection in Late Nineteenth-Century Fiction’, started with a discussion of Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago (1896), in which a recently delivered baby is said to be perhaps ‘still better unborn’.
The Jago, a fictionalised version of a London slum, is an area characterised by overpopulation and a supposed moral degeneracy. Taking Morrison’s text as a starting point, Doherty forged a connection between the ‘infectious’ nature of sexual reproduction, and the disease-like transmission of moral corruption, spread from criminals to the respectable poor due to the close proximity of these groups.
Moving beyond the realms of fiction, Doherty went on to discuss how Morrison, along with several contemporaries, considered a solution to this infectious form of doubled reproduction – a penal colony. Sexually segregated settlements would not only deter reproduction, but would also prevent the ‘infectious’ passing on of bad traits to children. This notion, of course, had roots in the workhouse system, which operated through the separation and segregation of family units. This notion, Doherty said, infected further texts of the era, reappearing in such works as HG Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), which featured a state divided between the post-human Eloi and Morlock species.
Spaces and Bodies (MP)
Louise Benson James opened the panel with her presentation on gothic medical spaces in the work of Lucas Malet (Mary St Leger Harrison): ‘Sick Rooms, Death-Beds, and Operating Theatres: Gothic Medical Spaces in the Fiction of Lucas Malet (1852-1931)’. Her paper showed how Malet was able to give voice to Victorian medical anxiety and trauma, by combining a scientific matter-of-fact writing style with the gothic. The combination of these styles allowed her to undermine the concept of the room and the body as stable containers of, amongst others, death and disease. James described how the character Jenny in The Wages of Sin (1891) is artistically dissected an art-room where each of her lover’s students paint a different part of her body. When Jenny is dying of tuberculosis, the death-room is uncannily linked to the art-room by the blood that she coughs up when she tries to laugh. At the same time, the macabre spectacle that Jenny presents, as the blood spills out of her mouth, destabilizes the image of the beautiful tubercular woman. In Richard Calmady (1901) Malet once more confronts her readers with a red-room when Richard Calmady’s leg is amputated in his own red drawing room. As the novel is set in 1842, the operation occurs without anaesthetics. James convincingly shows that even though the amputation itself is not described, its effects can be contained neither by Calmady’s body nor the drawing room. The stress of the operation and her husband’s cries of pain affect Calmady’s pregnant wife, who eventually gives birth to a child with shortened legs. In both novels, then, neither the body nor the spaces confining them succeed in keeping death and disease from spilling over and affecting others.
In the second paper, ‘“Full of fire and animation”: Sthenic Corpulence in Dickens’s Fiction’, Neil MacFarlane proposed that John Brown’s ‘Brunonian’ theory can be used to explain the way Charles Dickens represented jolly, fat, male characters. By looking at descriptions of Mr Pickwick in The Pickwick Papers, Fezziwig in A Christmas Carrol, and Mr Micawber in David Copperfield, MacFarlane showed how they are all described in words connected to warmth and light. Fezziwig, for example, has a ‘comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice’ and Mr Pickwick is ‘like another sun’. Imagery that is again reproduced in the images accompanying Dickens’ texts. By turning to Brown’s theory on obesity, McFarlane explained how these descriptions reflected Brown’s concept of the sthenic; a state of too much excitement, or over stimulation of the body. Brown believed that the obese body was in a constant mode of generating excitement (i.e. fat), without being able to use/burn it. The result was a continuous generation of warmth and health. According to McFarlane it is this warmth and health that permeate the literary and pictorial representations of Dickens’ characters.
Ruth Doherty (RD):
Ruth Doherty holds an MPhil in Popular Literature and a PhD from Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. Her doctoral research on representations of overpopulation in nineteenth-century fiction was funded by the Irish Research Council. Ruth’s research combines authors who were popular in the Victorian period but are now largely forgotten and authors who remain popular to this day – she has published essays on G. W. M. Reynolds, Arthur Morrison, and H. G. Wells.
Emily Turner (ET):
Emily Turner is a second-year postgraduate researcher and AHRC/CHASE funded doctoral candidate at the University of Sussex, where she is studying the medical humanities with a specific focus on locating archives of patient publications produced in mental health institutions between 1850 and 1950. Her research interests include the medical humanities, nineteenth-century fiction, and the history of art and science.
Marjolein Platjee (MP):
Marjolein Platjee is a PhD student with the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam. Having developed a considerable interest in death and the afterlife in the Victorian era, Marjolein’s research centres on representations of the dying and dead body in British popular fiction.