Life, Death and the Victorians (Public lecture, 20th September)


The Victorian period was a time of great scientific progress. But science of the time sometimes turned itself to investigating distasteful or strange subjects, like live animal experiments or whether ghosts really did exist. In this Late Summer Lecture, two expert speakers will show how novels of the period reflected these peculiar subjects. All welcome to Alington House, Durham on 20th September from 17.30. 

‘Change,’ with Claire Horton

Change is, and always has been, an inevitable consequence of life and was arguably at its greatest during the long Victorian era which saw major industrial, technological, social and scientific developments, particularly in the field of Victorian mental science. Before the nineteenth century, the mind had been viewed positively, as a faculty which strengthened an individual’s identity and contributed to defining a sense of self. But, by the 1830s, this viewpoint had begun to change with the emergence of mesmerism, first brought to England by Franz Anton Mesmer. Its popularity spanned the entire social spectrum and, as Alison Winter has successfully argued, effectively changed Victorian culture by becoming one of its central preoccupations.

Some of the reputed side-effects of mesmerism included ‘ghost-seeing’ which was often discussed in medical circles, especially in relation to involuntary functions of the mind including dreaming, somnambulism, reverie, hallucination and mental derangement. Such psychological states had previously been little understood but advancements in mental science and the publication of Samuel Hibbert’s Sketches of the Philosophy of Apparitions (1824) and David Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic (1832) linked these conditions not only to the mind but to memory itself. Such theories attracted the attention of many novelists including Charles Dickens who explored their implications via his fiction. However, this aspect of Dickens’ work has received relatively little critical attention despite the fact that Dickens displayed many pre-Freudian ideas in his work, especially where his ghost stories are concerned. To demonstrate, this paper will focus on two of Dickens’ works including A Christmas Carol (1843) and ‘The Signal-Man (1866)’, both of which may be read literally or as psychological explanations for ‘ghost-seeing’.

‘Protesting Progress?: Fiction and the Victorian Vivisector (1870-1910),’ by Asha Hornsby

The mid-late nineteenth century vivisection debates are part of a broader narrative of rapid scientific specialisation and professionalization. Experimental physiologists claimed to have conquered feelings that corrupted or obstructed a dispassionate clinical gaze and campaigned for the autonomy of laboratory medicine from the dictates of public feeling. For the infamous experimenter Claude Bernard, ‘a physiologist is no ordinary man.’ ‘Possessed and absorbed by the scientific idea that he pursues’, he ‘does not hear the cries of animals, he does not see their flowing blood, he sees nothing but his idea’. Whilst statements such as these ostensibly showed extreme detachment, opponents remained convinced that vivisectors delighted in causing pain and were enchanted by seeing the body in parts.

Intriguingly, while the pages of physiological handbooks and anti-vivisection periodicals describe live animal experiments in detail, Victorian novels that feature vivisectors tend to shy away from representing such acts. Instead, novelists redirected their readers’ gaze upon the vivisector’s physical body which they suggested might unwittingly betray his otherwise unforthcoming interiority. This paper compares two little known propaganda stories with Wilkie Collins’s novel Heart and Science (1883) and explores how these writers tried to pin down their slippery scientists by using modalities endangered by the cutting-edge practices of experimental physiology. By combining physiognomy and pathognomy with textual terminology, anti-vivisection novelists forwarded a more traditional, scholastic, and non-invasive approach to medical practice and set those emotions which vivisectors claimed to have quashed, centre-stage. Whereas a critical eye and ability to dissect textual meaning was crucial to the Movement’s propaganda strategy, reading bodies required a less invasive approach to avoid forms of critique which looked very much like vivisections. Nevertheless, the fictional impulse to decipher what lay beneath the vivisector’s discomfiting smooth exterior raised anxious questions about the relation between the pen and the scalpel.

Late Summer Lectures runs every Wednesday until 4th October. Come and find out about topics ranging from apocalypse and utopia, to British poetry of the coast. Join the conversation on Twitter via #LateSummerLectures.

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