Disability Studies Community Blog
Review by Crystal Benedicks, Ph.D., Associate Professor of English, Chair of the Department of English, Wabash College, Email: email@example.com
Keywords: England; literature
Literature and Medicine: The Nineteenth Century, edited by Clark Lawlor and Andrew Mangham, is the second of two volumes released this summer by Cambridge University Press exploring the dialogue between literature and medicine in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is also a surprisingly relevant pandemic read. While COVID-19 is never mentioned, the parallels are striking: 21st-century readers live in a moment marked by urgent controversies over the validity of scientific authority, while Victorians similarly struggled to come to terms with an increasingly institutionalized and professionalized field of medical science. For the Victorians, literature became a way to play out anxieties over medical science’s new authority. In his chapter “Physics and Metaphysics: Poetry and the Unsteady Ascent of Professional Medicine,” for example, contributor Daniel Brown points out that early nineteenth-century scientists were able to prove the efficacy of a smallpox vaccine that produced a mild case of cowpox in the recipient. A suspicious poet responded with “Verses Composed Upon That Sublime Subject the Cowpock Preached by Mr. Lyons,” in which he worries that scientists are impinging on a higher law: “Let God alone the first infection give / Then should they die resigned to him you live” (97). This sentiment would be familiar to anyone who has encountered the common anti-vaxxer argument that lives during a pandemic are in God’s hands regardless of the medical science.
It would do this rich volume a disservice, though, to reduce nineteenth-century medicoliterary discourse to a simple register of resistance. In fact, this book makes the case that Victorian literature encodes a vast array of responses—positive, negative, and, most of all, anxious—during a period of unprecedented medical discovery. The nineteenth century saw an explosion of new subfields, from anesthesiology to dentistry to gynecology to neurology. Germ theory was introduced, as were blood transfusions. The stethoscope, the syringe, and the x-ray were invented. This professionalization of medical science challenged traditional clinical methods of “reading” bodies—and, the contributors to this volume argue, similarly challenged traditional story-telling methods. In the volume’s introduction, Mangham posits that “medicine and literature of the nineteenth century shared an interest in the way in which knowledge is constituted” (10). In other words, both scientists and writers were invested in questions of how we know things and how we represent those ways of knowing.
This volume is divided into three sections:
Epistemologies, which explores the intersection of medical knowledge and literary genre
II) Professionalization, which examines literary reactions to the increasing professionalization of medicine
III) Responses, which details literary responses to specific medical innovations.
In the remainder of this review, I will focus on a representative chapter from each section that would be of particular interest to disability scholars—although I don’t mean to suggest that these are the only chapters that would interest readers of DSQ.
In Part I, “Epistemologies,” Museum Studies scholar Verity Burke describes how sensation fiction—novels with shocking plots that were meant to produce a physical response in readers—provided a generic answer to the concerns about propriety that accompanied the nineteenth-century interest in categorizing and displaying bodies and body parts. In “Exhibiting Bodies: Museums, Collecting, and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Literature,” Burke describes how popular “anatomy museums” embraced middle class respectability in their claim to scientific pedagogy, but also retained the disreputable taint of the circus (the wax vagina of the “anatomical Venus” drew a steady stream of viewers). Stuck between science and spectacle, the laboratory and the freak show, anatomy museums were legally and morally contested.
Burke contends that literature absorbed and went some way to resolving this anxiety in sensation fiction, which combined the thrill of the body on display with the analytical gaze of a scientist. Readers can thus be titillated by, say, the alluring detective heroine in popular sensation novel The Lady and The Law, who must correctly interpret the lurid items, such as a “book of hair,” that fill the nightmarish home “museum” of a disabled genius. Simultaneously, readers’ fascination is absolved by the fact that these physical objects are narrative clues as critical to sense-making and plot-resolution as a scientist’s reading of nature. Burke concludes that sensation fiction thus allows bodies to “impart knowledge and solve mysteries rather than remain mere curiosities” (73).
In Part II, “Professionalization,” Arlene Young tackles the complicated question of women tending male bodies. In “Heroics, Devotion, and Erotics: Class, Sexuality, and the Victorian Nurse,” Young explains that as the rise of nursing schools became a respectable option for middle-class women, the stereotype of the nurse-as-untrained-domestic-servant collided with an emergent vision of the nurse-as-professional. One was bawdy and drunken; the other saintly and heroic. Whether demonized or sanctified, nurses carried “the taint of intimate physical contact” (126). In Victorian literature, Young argues, the figure of the nurse emerges as “an unstable hybrid of feminine values and foibles—of devotion, of heroism, of veniality, and of unseemly sexual knowledge” (134). She cites several popular stories that hinge on the moral character of nurses, noting that the question of medical professionalization was morally charged for women.
Like Burke and Young, contributor Ryan Sweet is interested in the constitution of the material body in literature. In “Physical ‘Wholeness’ and ‘Incompleteness’ in Victorian Prothesis Narratives,” Sweet addresses the nineteenth-century’s booming prosthetic industry, a result of advances in surgical procedures that meant people survived accidents that would have killed them earlier. More surviving amputees meant more and better prosthetics. Sweet notes that in 1820 there were three companies in London producing artificial limbs; by the 1880s there were nearly twenty. At the same time, medical scientists became more and more interested in bodily difference as a register of moral and psychological turpitude.
In a climate where physical “wholeness” was equated with health, a premium was placed on “passing” as whole. Sweet probes this mandate to simulated “wholeness” in the popular Victorian short story “Lady Letitia’s Lilliput Hand.” Letitia’s hand is the source of her attractiveness; gentleman admirers swoon over its dainty perfection. However, the hand turns out to be artificial, Letitia’s organic one having been violently crushed by her now-deceased first husband in a horrific deathbed struggle. As Sweet notes, the story encodes the ableist assumptions that one might expect; Letitia’s disability is a secret shame played for shock value. However, in Sweet’s reading, the story pushes back at normative ableism when Letitia reveals that she is an amputee and is rewarded with an respectable husband who adores her so much he keeps her hand as a memento even after her death. While this has overtones of fetishization, it also foregrounds the revelation of disability—and not its concealment—as the galvanizer of the marriage plot. The “outed” amputee becomes the good Victorian wife and mother. As Sweet puts it, the story “scrutinizes the mandate to pass as normal,” demonstrating that “physical wholeness was being anatomized as it was being constructed” (246).
Burke, Sweet, and the other contributors to this volume make the case that medical science permeates and shapes literature, just as literature becomes the conceptual arena in which social anxieties about medicalized bodies can be explored. At root, this volume claims, both medical science and literature are ways of telling stories about bodies. In moments when medical science looms large in the cultural imagination, the stories we tell serve as barometers of our desires and fears.