Report: Mystery and Medicine – The Dark Side of Science in Victorian Fiction

Back in June, I was lucky enough to travel to Galway to take part in the Victorian Popular Fiction Association’s Mystery and Medicine: The Dark Side of Science in Victorian Fiction study day, which was held at the National University of Ireland, Galway. I wrote a report on one of the panels, ‘Gender and Class’, which has been featured on the Victorian Popular Fiction Association’s blog. I’ve featured my own section below, but to check out the other reports by Ruth Doherty and Marjolein Platjee, check the original blog at http://victorianpopularfiction.org/category/vpfa-blog.

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[Speakers, from left to right: Abby Boucher, Ruth Doherty, and Sara Zadrozny.]

Parallel Session 1 – Gender and Class

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.

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