Fiction and the Victorian Vivisector

The idea of vivisection – performing surgical experiments on live animals in the name of science – makes many people squeamish. Not surprisingly, the ethics of animal experimentation were hotly debated in the Victorian period too. Asha Hornsby (University College London) shows how novelists of the time sought to understand the mentality of the vivisectionist, who needed to maintain uncannily cool dispassion as he prodded and dismembered the furry creature before him.

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.

This podcast was recorded during the series Late Summer Lectures in 2017. Listen to other lectures from the series here:

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