What was Victorian Doubt?

Butler - Victorian Doubt“There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.”

So writes Tennyson in his In Memoriam. According to Lance St John Butler, in his Victorian Doubt: Literary and Cultural Discourses (1990), Victorian doubt was not some “mere shadow of faith, a ghost prowling at the feast of the believers, but as the very condition of there being faith at all.” “Above all,” he continues, “doubt came to be seen, especially later in the century, as a corrective that religion offered to mere theology.” While Enlightenment skepticism seemed to put religion in jeopardy, doubt, after Romanticism, “became something positive as is apparent not only in an honest doubter such as Tennyson but also in many of the ‘deconversion narratives’ of Harriet Martineau and F.W. Newman, William Hale White, Samuel Butler and others,” including Lesile Stephen’s Agnostic Apology (1876) and A.J. Balfour’s Defense of Philosophic Doubt (1879). Numerous metaphors were used to express these “deconversions”:

“Mankind have outgrown old institutions and old doctrines, and have not yet acquired new ones” (Mill);

“The old has passed away, but, alas, the new appears not in its stead” (Carlyle);

“Wandering between two worlds, one dead The other powerless to be born” (Arnold).

There was much religious ambiguity during the Victorian period. It was “a puzzle to many Victorians how unbelief seemed to gain ground in spite of the greatly increased evangelistic effort.” The advances of science began to cause distress only later in the century, “after Buckle, Darwin and Colenso.” Evolution was not the problem. According to Butler, “religion quickly took on board the whole of evolution, at least in intellectual circles…[it had] no effect in halting the imminent decline in religious practice.”

“We need an account of the Victorians,” Butler argues, “that does not rely too heavily on our belief that we know the end of the story.” Butler’s purpose in the following chapters is to demonstrate that the “avowedly religious discourse of the Victorians is shot through with the lexicon, the syntax and the imagery of doubt while the avowedly unreligious or antireligious discourse of the period is shot through with metaphysical assumptions, and with vocabulary and imagery that betray the cultural pervasion of religion.” “The point at issue,” he goes on, “seems more to have been which religion (taking this word in its broadest sense) to pursue, or how to deal with the religious cultural baggage loaded onto the Victorian mind, rather than whether to both with religion at all.”

“Doubt is ubiquitous in the discourse of the Victorians.” An endemic doubt, a prevalence of metaphysical anxiety, is present in the vast majority of Victorian writers. But Victorian doubt should not be confused with unbelief or despair, “the prelude to atheism.” It is, as in the case of the honest doubter Tennyson, the faintly trusting of a “larger hope.” Many Victorian writers saw themselves as “living without God in the world.” This was not a personal choice; rather, it was a sense of “God’s absence from the world.”  The writings of Antony Trollope (1815-1882), George Eliot (1819-1880), Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) and Emily Brontë (1818-1848) seem, at first glance, to be a radical secularization of the English novel. But according to Butler, they actually display a religious ambiguity, or, more generally, a deep desire for religion to work. Charles Dickens’ (1812-1870) Bleak House (1852-53), for example, treats the clergy as secular and strained: “Churches tend to be either decaying or out of place in some other way wrong.”

Even John Henry Newman (1801-1890), in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), and then in his Apologia (1864), displays a move from relative optimism to a “black pessimism.” Man needs God. But he also needs a “guide to lead him to a knowledge of God and that that guide must be the Catholic Church.” As Butler surmises, “for Newman the fallen world is, per se, utterly bereft of the divine and man is encircled by gloom…Newman is working perilously closely alongside the classics of Victorian doubt.”

Many other Catholic poets shared Newman’s “metaphorical system of Victorian doubt.” G.M. Hopkins (1844-1889) “felt that God hid Himself from the world.” Francis Thompson’s (1859-1907) Hound of Heaven (1893) depicts the believer as wanting “escape not from the consequences of sin but from the consequences of unbelief. He tries to escape God in his own mind and by hiding under laughter (scoffing?) and by finding other ‘hopes’ and by plunging into despair, evidently a despair based on the fear that God does not exist.”

The loss of faith pervades Victorian poetry. The mourning, this nostalgia for lost love, is “a metaphor for another, deeper loss,” Butler tells us: “the loss of a more general certainty.” “Any anthology of Victorian poetry quickly reveals the obsession with loss, with death, with endings and with yearnings for greener grass elsewhere.”

Images of light in darkness are found in several places in the novels of Dickens. The darkness in, for example, Great Expectations (1860-61), Bleak House (1852-53) is a symbol that something has “gone terribly wrong with the world.” “[H]ell has risen and engulfed the earth.” As Butler astutely writes, “The fog, the mud, the nightmares, the darkness, the squalor, the disease, the poverty—these are not only social problems (they they are that), they are also emblems of spiritual wreck and images of a devilish possession of man’s abode.” This is the “infernalisation of the earth,” the “dark Satanic mills” of William Blake’s (1757-1827) Milton (c. 1804-10). Was this “hell-on-earth” the result of industrialization? Or was it punishment? Or the  spiritual condition of Victorian humanity? Whatever it was, the central question on the minds of Victorian writers: Where is God? The answer: “God is absetn from the world as currently organised, he has disappeared; we are, are Hardy will put it, ‘God-forgotten’; the light is available only beyond the tomb or behind a veil.”

According to Butler, such imagery and language is first hinted at in Romanticism; but “in Carlyle and Dickens hell takes on its full industrial panoply of horrors and dominates the world.” Both authors had been inspired by Henry Mayhew’s (1812-1887) Labour and the London Poor, published as a series of articles in the Morning Chronicle in the 1840s. After reading these articles, one reader commented: “We live in a mockery of Christianity that, with the thought of its hypocrisy, makes me sick.”

Carlyle’s Latter-Day Pamphlets of 1850 added a “spiritual dimension to Mayhew’s sociological and economic picture.” The degradation of slums is a symbol for the moral degradation of England; the mud of the poison-swamp is London’s dirt and cosmic filth, “a symbol for the dire state of English society. Dragon and devils emerge from the mud; hypocrisy has come to dominate the nineteenth century; the gates of hell are prevailing. According to Butler, although the images of hell-on-earth are undoubtedly social commentary on the “poverty and injustice of the social system and its concrete effects,” Carlyle emphasizes the “inner man”: “Something must be wrong in the inner man of the world, since its outer man is so terribly out of square!”

Dickens had borrowed many aspects of the Carlylean mythology. In Dickens, too, hell is rampant among us and dominant on the earth, while “heaven has become a distant and highly speculative possibility.” Like other Victorians, Dickens is a radical doubter. Organized religion is “unable to combat either the physical or moral nightmares that surround it.” This world is damned. Images of decay, mud, fog, brutes, labyrinths, prisons, and hell-flames were, for Dickens and other Victorians, symbols “that could simultaneously asserts man’s abandonment by God (loss of faith, doubt) and remind him of his need to try to ward off the devil and become something like fully human (faith that there was somewhere a metaphysical guarantee, ‘behind the veil’, that the universe might still be ‘read’ as a morally significant structure even if the readings were almost universally negative).”

This “metaphysical guarantee,” this “surer basis for harmony,” was initially sought in the salvation of science. But the application of science only brought more questions and the relativising of European culture. Victorian geologists not only “demonstrated the uncomfortable longevity of the earth, they also prognosticated a catastrophic future for the planet, now in its ‘decrepitude.'” Astronomy had revealed a vast universe, but at the same time “you feel human insignificance too plainly.” One Victorian reader of the astronomy comments: “It makes me feel that it is not worthwhile to live; it quite annihilates me.”

Many negative images were, however, balanced with positive ones. What is important to note, and quite paradoxical, says Butler, is that “among the novelists at least, the more believing writers reach for the Satanic while the ‘unbelievers’ will reach for the figure of Jesus Christ.”

Victorian belief, writes Butler, was “shot through with elements of doubt or cosmic depression,” a “world cut off from God.” And in the work of Victorian writers, there is an “unmistakable fear that God has abandoned the earth and that it has been handed over to the forces of darkness.” But in writing about God’s abandonment, Victorians continued using the language of Christian tradition. In this sense, Christian vocabulary and symbolism were “hijacked” for other purposes. Indeed, Robert Owen (1771-1858), Carlyle, Arnold, and many other Victorian writers employed religious discourse in their writings.

Butler in chapter four, “the discourses of religion among Victorian doubters,” focuses on a few such writers. The influence of Auguste Comte (1798-1857) here is central. “Comte’s work was utterly (and deliberately) imbued with religious elements,” Butler tells us. Claimed to be the first female sociologist, Harriet Martineau (1802-1876), translated Comte’s The Positive Philosophy in 1853. British secularist George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906) “welcomed her English version of Comte as his ‘Bible’ and said that it gave him his ‘creed.'”

Reaction to Comte and his Positivism was not as severe as one might expect. Many recognized that it “showed that orthodoxy had failed the people and that the earnest efforts of Comtists were going in the right spiritual direction.” With the alleged decline of Christianity, many sized upon a metaphysical replacement. This was readily admitted. When British liberal politician, William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), wrote to Holyoake in 1897, he said this much. He also “pointed out that the latter’s secularism (and secularism in general) could never have existed without a precedent Christianity and the ‘atheist’ Holyoake hinted at the possibility of immortality not only in this late correspondence with Gladstone (who was dying at the time) but also in his pamphlet of earlier and more fiery years, The Logic of Death of 1849.” Other so-called atheists or agnostics, including John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), in his posthumous essay on “Theism” (1874), “had not quite discounted personal survival.”

The employment of religious language among the religiously skeptical is so self-conscious that one must conclude that Victorian secularists were often Janus-faced. T.H. Huxley (1825-1895), for instance, in a letter to Kingsley in 1870, refers to his “sins,” the “sanctity of human nature,” the “sacredness” of human duty. Huxley also refers to Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1836) as leading him “to know that a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology.” “Above all,” writes Butler, “the faith in science and in the new post-Darwinian ‘truth’ was strongly asserted, with a fervour not unlike that of the evangelicals.”

Returning to Comte, Butler reminds us that many contemporaries saw his “Religion of Humanity” as Catholicism minus Christianity. Unitarian minister John Trevor (1855-1930) formed the Labour Church in the 1890s, for instance, and modeled it after Comte’s principles. Although a short-lived failure—apparently disappearing shortly after World War I—its first principle declared “That the Labour Movement is a Religious Movement.”

Interestingly enough, when the Labour Church disappeared, so did Comte’s “Churches of Humanity.” According to Butler, with the “departure of Victorian religion went the departure of Victorian unbelief too. The two were intimately bound together by their possession of a common discourse.”

Butler argues his case by focusing on two main examples, Victorian doubters Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) and Mary Anne Evans (1819-1880), otherwise known by her pen name as George Eliot.  Stephen’s Agnostic’s Apology (1874) seems to model itself after Puritan autobiographies and conversion narratives. His doubt is a doubt expressed religiously. In her various writers, from the 1840s to the 1850s, Eliot imagined herself as either  rationalist, theist, pantheist, or positivist. Her husband, English philosopher and critic of literature and theater George Henry Lewes (1817-1878) was, however, “Comte’s most ardent British disciple.” They first meet in the early 1850s, and by 1863, Eliot describes herself as “swimming in Comte.” According to Butler, Eliot had “turned not so much from religion to infidelity as from the religion of her father to the religion of her husband.” Butler follows Eliot’s religious development throughout a number of works, including the novella “The Lifted Veil” (1859), a poem “The Choir Invisible” (1867), supplied to Positivists for use as a hymn in their new liturgy, and her more well-known novels Middlemarch (1874) and Daniel Deronda (1876). According to Butler, Eliot’s writings is “dominated by religious discourse to the point that it cannot be read separately from the vocabularly, the symbolic systems, the codes and the narrative syntax of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.” This should come as no surprise, for the “Comtean religion is, after all, a lonely and elevated affair with little to cheer a soul still trying to wrap about itself the Hebrew old clothes.”

The period between 1869-74 is known for a number of important events, from the Franco-Prussian war, the rise of Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), the revolutionary and socialist Paris Commune (18 March-28 May, 1871), the unification of Italy, and the Pastor aeternus, or the proclamation of Papal infallibility (1870). Indeed, Butler sees the 1870s as a “fulcrum or watershed” moment for Victorian doubt.

Besides these important political events, there was a “surge of science publications in the 1870s.” Tyndall published his Lectures on Sound (1867) and his Lectures on Light (1873). Darwin not only published his Descent of Man (1871), but also his essays on “Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication” (1868) and “Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals” (1872). Wallace published his Natural Selection (1870), The Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876), and his Tropical Nature (1878). Spencer published his Principles of Psychology (1870). Huxley published his Lay Sermons (1870) and spent the whole period from circa 1871-1880 as Secretary to the Royal Society.

The “scientific” study of religion was also gaining greater currency. Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900), for instance, published in 1873 his Introduction to the Science of Religion and subsequently his 1878 Origin and Growth of Religion. Although Müller distrusted Darwin, Huxley, and Spencer, he was convinced that religion had “progressed” from the days of the Rig Veda. Higher Criticism was ever so popular in the 1870s. Besides Strauss and Renan, J.R. Seeley published his Ecce Homo in 1865, followed by George Macdonald’s Miracles of Our Lord (1870), Henry Ward Beecher’s Life of Jesus (1871), Eliza Lynn Linton’s “historical” novel The True History of Joshua Davidson (1872), F.W. Farrar’s Life of Christ (1874), and many others.

According to Butler, “religious novels were popular throughout the Victorian period…but whereas before 1870 these are mostly novels of inter-sectarian controversy, after 1870 the preponderant question is the question of doubt.”

Butler then goes on to show that the decade of 1870 is marked by “non-religious” novels. For example, he mentions the work of George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy, and Matthew Arnold. Butler also wants to point out that during this decade “religion had reached a high water mark.” It is indeed the decade of Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899) and his revivalism. It was also the decade of the Metaphysical Society (1869-1880), founded by James Knowles (1831-1908). Its membership included Tennyson, W.K. Clifford, Huxley, Stephen, but also many prominent clergymen. These men were to meet in London “nine times a year to discuss the problems of the coexistence of religion and science.” Knowles’ journal, The Nineteenth Century, published many of the writings of the members.

According to Butler, all this points to a growing “new consensus, a compromise.” This new “spirit of compromise” is apparent in Victorian literary works. John Morley’s On Compromise (1874) and Arnold’s St Paul and Protestantism (1870) and Literature and Dogma (1873) are case examples Butler provides the reader. Although religion is still dead for Morley, Butler’s point in including him is that more optimistic view is beginning to “creep into the sense of loss.” Morley calls “all forms of frivolity, all weak convictions, all vapidity and nihilism,” for example, “forces of darkness.”  One should hold strongly to either belief, atheism, or agnosticism, and refuse to wallow in despair. What is more, each point of view “should learn to tolerate the other’s point of view.” Arnold’s God and the Bible (1875) sums up Morley position: “Two things about the Christian religion must surely be clear to anybody with eyes in his head. One is, that men cannot do without it; the other, that they cannot do with it as it is.” This, says Butler, the “compromise of disbelieving religiously.”

*  *  *

Laura Otis’ Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology (2009)

Laura Otis - Literature and Science in the Nineteenth CenturyIt is perhaps fitting that my 100th post on this blog should be Laura Otis’ Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology (2009). My research began in September with historiographies of the Scientific Revolution, only to converge in recent months on nineteenth-century narratologies of “conflict” between religion and science, which, I believe, depended crucially on literature and the stories nineteenth-century figures told about what counted as “religion” or what counted as “science.” To this end, Otis’ collection of excerpts from novels, plays, poetry, essays, scientific articles, lectures, treatises, and textbooks written throughout the course of the nineteenth century offers a solid starting place.

At the 1833 meeting of the BAAS, William Whewell proposed the neologism “scientist” for investigators who until then had been known as natural philosophers. In the nineteenth century, “science” came to signify the study of the natural physical world. According to Otis, “the notion of a split between literature and science, of a gap to be bridged between the two, was never a nineteenth-century phenomenon.” Indeed, “the two commingled and were assessable to all readers.” Like Sleigh, Otis notes that “scientists quoted well-known poets both in their textbooks and in their articles for lay readers, and writers…explored the implications of scientific theories.” “As a growing system of knowledge expressed in familiar words, science was in effect a variety of literature.” In nineteenth-century periodicals, magazines, and newspapers, “articles on scientific issues were set side-by-side with fiction, poetry and literary criticism.”

At the same time, however, “as Western economies became more industrial and agricultural, educational reformers protested that the traditional curriculum of Greek and Latin literature…failed to prepare the new professional classes for modern life.” T.H. Huxley, for example, “claimed provocatively that for the purpose of attaining real culture, an exclusively scientific education is at least as effectual as an exclusively literary education.” This insistence on the cultural centrality of science disturbed English poet and literary critic Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), who protested that Huxley was defining literature much too narrowly. According to Arnold, “all knowledge that reaches us through books is literature.”

Otis intends this anthology “to illustrate both common and divergent patterns in the techniques of nineteenth-century authors.” Even a cursory reading of successful scientists in the nineteenth century shows that “most good scientists were also imaginative writers. The ability to express oneself articulately was essential for the communication and progress of science.”

Because scientific knowledge was spread most effectively through the printed word, “to win the confidence of educated readers, nineteenth-century scientists made frequent references to the fiction and poetry of the day and to that of earlier generations.” And by doing so, they declared an affinity with respected authors and, implicitly, with their readers. According to James Secord, for example, Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-1833) “won a wide readership not just because he provided convincing evidence for gradual geological change but because he used literary references to Milton, Scott, and Wordsworth to present geology as a respectable, gentlemanly pursuit.”

At its most fundamental level, Otis argues, “scientific explanation of the world is akin to processes of reading and writing.” Whether studying skull structures, geological layers, or bird populations, scientists were deciphering sign systems and interpreting texts.

Images render vague ideas more clearly. Indeed, to complement his factual evidence for evolution in The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin offered readers a series of “imaginary illustrations,” scenes which encourage them to picture natural selection at work. “When Darwin presented his theory of natural selection, he knew that readers were used to such voyages [imaginary voyages and imaginary travelers were very popular in nineteenth-century periodicals], and he drew on their capabilities to re-create the evolutionary process. Like novelists who took readers into imaginary worlds, Darwin appealed to his readers to imagine the development of life as he described it.”

But “it would be inaccurate,” Otis warns us, “to depict nineteenth-century literature as a realm in which the imagination had comparatively free reign. As we have seen with Sleigh, novelists of the period greatly concerned themselves with the latest scientific “facts.”

Similarly, “nineteenth-century scientists found they could be more persuasive by using the storytelling techniques of fiction writers.” Darwin, who took a volume of Milton’s poems with him on his five year voyage on the HMS Beagle, described the struggle for life through references to Milton’s poetic images. “Milton’s poems allowed Darwin to imagine the creation as a long, continuous process, nurturing his developing concept of evolution.”

For most of the nineteenth century, scientists and literary writers shared a common vocabulary and common literary techniques. But as Otis argues, “it is also crucial to recognize that the same subjects occupied both scientific and literary writers.” The quest for origins developed simultaneously in studies of language, geology, zoology, and numerous other fields. Questions of individuality also preoccupied both scientist and writer. And more narrowly questions about what it meant to be human disturbed both nineteenth-century writers and scientists. “The rapid development of industrialization, physiology, evolutionary theory, and the mental and social sciences challenge the traditional view of people as uniquely privileged beings created in the divine image.”

Otis’ anthology ultimately “invites readers to explore the fertile exchange of images, metaphors, and narrative techniques among writers who today—though not in their own day—are regarded as members of very different disciplines.” It aims to “reveal dialogues and confluences.”

The selected bibliography following the introduction is indispensable, including sources on mathematics, physical science, and technology; sciences of the body; evolution; sciences of the mind; and the social sciences, which are all presented as major themes in the text. Also follows is a helpful chronology of events and publications from 1800 to 1900.

Literature and Science

The anthology begins with a prologue on Literature and Science, with excerpts from Edgar Allen Poe’s Sonnet—To Science (1829), who lamented over the dangers of science posed on poetry and creativity: “why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart, vulture, whose wings are dull realities?” There follows John Tyndall’s Belfast Address (1874), commanding scientists to “wrest from theology, the entire domain of cosmological theory,” yet maintaining that “some of the greatest [scientific] discoveries have been made under the stimulus of a non-scientific ideal.” Indeed, Tyndall called imagination “the mightiest instrument of the physical discoverer.” Thus “science desires not isolation, but freely combines with every effort towards the bettering of man’s estate.” Also included in this prologue are excerpts of the debate between Thomas Henry Huxley, from Science and Culture (1880), and Matthew Arnold, from Literature and Science (1882) mentioned earlier in introduction.

Mathematics, Physical Science, and Technology

Each collection of essays is guided by a particular theme, and here Otis offers helpful introductory comments. The guiding theme for the first set of writings, for example, is Mathematics, Physical Science, and Technology. In Mathematics, Otis argues that both mathematicians and literary writers used analogies, metaphors, and the malleability of language to convey meaning to new scientific discoveries. Here she includes excerpts from Ada Lovelace’s Sketch of the Analytical Engine (1843); Augustus de Morgan’s Formal Logic (1847); George Boole’s An Investigation of the Laws of Thought (1854); John Venn’s The Logic of Chance (1866); Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871) and The Game of Logic (1886); George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876); and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895).

In the Physical Science, Otis claims that “both physicists and literary writers challenged the notion that humankind could anticipate a more civilized, prosperous future.” In introducing theories of gradual energy loss, some asked readers to “conceive of a being” who selectively opens portals between two compartments. Vision also became “a key metaphorical vehicle in nineteenth-century writing.” Imaginative journeys among the stars and within electrical and magnetic forces, invisible phenomena such as X-rays and literary allusions were all used to explain advances in the physical sciences. Otis includes excerpts from Sir William Herschel’s One the Power of Penetrating into Space by Telescopes (1800); Thomas Carlye’s Past and Present (1843); Sir John Herschel’s Outlines of Astronomy (1849); Michael Faraday’s Experimental Researches in Electricity (1839-55) (1852); William Thomson, Lord Kelvin’s On the Age of the Sun’s Heat (1862) and The Sorting Demon of Maxwell (1879); John Tyndall’s On Chemical Rays, and the Light of the Sky (1869) and On the Scientific Use of the Imagination (1870); James Clerk Maxwell’s Theory of Heat (1871), To the Chief Musician upon Nabla: A Tyndallic Ode (1874), Professor Tait, Loquitur and Answer to Tait (1877), and To Hermann Stoffkraft (1878); Thomas Hardy’s Two on a Tower (1882); Richard A. Proctor’s The Photographic Eyes of Science (1883); and Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen’s On a New Kind of Rays (1895).

In Technology (or Telecommunications?), Otis relates how Samuel F.B. Morse’s Letter to Hon. Levi Woodbury, Secretary of the US Treasury, 27 September 1837 presented his electromagnetic telegraph as “a national nervous system.” An anonymous reviewer from Westminster Review (1878) on The Telephone also utilized analogies of the human body. According to Otis, “for nineteenth-century inventors the resemblance between sensory organs and technical devices was more than an informative metaphor; it inspired the design of communications devices.” Also included in this section is Mark Twain’s satire, Mental Telegraphy (1891), “in which a narrator argues that thoughts can be transmitted from mind to mind.” Otis also includes excerpts from Rudyard Kipling’s The Deep-Sea Cables (1896) and Henry James’ In the Cage (1898), the latter arguing with prescience that “the telegraph fails to deliver the knowledge or relationships it promises, and the feeling of connectedness offered by technological communications proves illusory.”

In the final section, Bodies and Machines, Otis observes that “as mechanized industry developed, writers from all fields compared bodies to machines.” This, of course, is not unique to nineteenth-century thinkers. But unlike previous analogies, nineteenth-century Europe witnessed the rapid development of a great variety of technologies, encouraging “all those who used it to rethink their notions of mind, body, and identity.” Excerpts are drawn from Charles Babbage’s On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (1832); Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son (1847-8); Hermann von Helmholtz’ On the Conservation of Force (1847); Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872); and Walt Whitman’s To a Locomotive in Winter (1876).

Sciences of the Body

The second theme of writings concerns the Sciences of the Body. “Both the scientific and literary writers represented here,” Otis tells us, “do their utmost to take readers into a scene so that the readers can experience it for themselves.” On Animal Electricity, Luigi Galvani’s De Viribus Electricitatis (1791) “offers vivid pictures of fluids circulating through tubes” in order to explain the nervous system, identifying “the principle of life” with electricity. Sir Humphry Davy’s Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry (1802) also uses metaphors to describe the usefulness of chemistry. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) uses the writings of Xavier Bichat and Galvani in her account of the irresponsible scientist Victor Frankenstein. Walt Whitman’s I Sing the Body Electric (1855) uses similar language of electromagnetism.

In Cells and Tissues and Their Relation to the Body, Otis brings together writings from Xavier Bichat’s General Anatomy (1801), who, in studying living tissues, ironically proposed “one must investigate death.” Rudolf Virchow’s Cellular Pathology (1858), using a microcosm-macrocosm analogy, compared the relationship between the cell and the body to that of the individual and society. George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-2) likewise viewed “bodies and societies has highly interconnected webs in which one could explain events only by comprehending the relations among individuals.” George Henry Lewes’ The Physical Basis of Mind (1877), although critical of “imaginary anatomy” used by some scientists, nevertheless argues, like Tyndall and Eliot before him, “that imagination played a central role in scientific thinking.”

On Hygiene, Germ Theory, and Infectious Diseases, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), using the metaphor of fire, “presents disease as something that both can and cannot be contained.” Sir Edwin Chadwick’s An Inquiry into the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (1842) “demands that readers confront not just the sights but the nauseating smells of the slums…organizing his narrative so that the reader follows eye-witnesses into industrial cities’ forbidding alleys.” But having said this, Chadwick also rejects Shelley’s representation of diseases as an uncontrollable force in nature.  Edgar Allan Poe’s The Mask of the Red Death (1842) also conveys a growing understanding of individual identity and responsibility in mitigating the spread of infectious diseases. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever (1843), Louis Pasteur’s On the Organized Bodies Which Exist in the Atmosphere (1861) and Sir Joseph Lister’s Illustrations of the Antiseptic System (1867) argue that bacterial infections can be greatly reduced, simply by “covering wounds, sterilizing instruments, and washing one’s hands.” The anonymous author of Dr Koch on the Cholera (1884) in The Lancet, likewise, argued that people are “responsible for their diseases not because they have incurred divine wrath but because they have failed to follow hygienic laws.” And H.G. Wells’ The Stolen Bacillus (1895) invites readers “to look through a microscope with his character so that they can see the cholera bacillus as a bacteriologist sees it.”

The last section in this collection of writings concentrates on Experimental Medicine and Vivisection, calling for greater responsibility and accountability on the part of scientists themselves. Excerpts from Claude Bernard’s An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1865) and Sir James Paget’s Vivisection: Its Pains and Its Uses (1881) argue that “experiments must be responsibly designed.” Frances Power Cobbe’s Vivisection and Its Two-Faced Advocates (1882) quotes physiologists’ own metaphorical descriptions of a damaged brain “as a ‘lately-hoed potato field’…to alert readers to the ‘real’ nature of their experiments.” More polemically, Wilkie Collins’ Heart and Science (1883) and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) depict arrogant, sadistic scientists, “those who fail to think ahead and consider the value and consequences of their experiments.”


The third theme of Otis’ anthology focuses on Evolution. “Forced to describe an inaccessible past, scientists and literary writers recreating natural history appealed to their readers’ imagination.” The challenge, of course, was to make “readers picture a thousand, ten thousand, or a million years of gradual change, periods that for most people were almost unimaginable.”

Under the section of The Present and the Past, selections from Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck’s Zoological Philosophy (1809) describes how “valuable new traits and habits could be directly transmitted to the next generation,” thus appealing to “people’s sense of self-worth.” Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-3) “compared himself to a historian, criticizing his opponents’ theories in terms that echo reviews of bad fiction.” Lyell was also anxious to appeal to conservative readers, and thus wrote his “story in the language of educated gentlemen, illustrating his ideas with quotations from Virgil, Horace, Shakespeare, and Milton.” William Whewell’s Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840) relates the limitations of the English language when accounting for both space and time. According to Whewell, “the rhythm and metre of language suggested time’s passage far better than the spatial metaphors that language offered.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Princess (1847) challenges the notion that a fragmented past constitutes a coherent history: “Like the portraits of ancestors, fossils alone can tell no story. It takes imagination, not just memories, to create a meaningful narrative.” Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) reminded readers of how breeders produced new animals, “summoning images from their memories.” What is more, despite numerous observations to support his theory, Darwin knew—ironically—he needed to tell readers a story for them to accept it as real. George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) suggests, like geologists and naturalists, “novelists are retelling lost tales, recovering lives and events whose traces have been obliterated…[presenting] the relations between present and past in a manner quite similar to Lyell’s.” Thomas Henry Huxley’s On the Physical Basis of Life (1869) cites French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), known for his interests in the relationship between animals (especially human beings) to their environment. According to Otis, “cultural debates about evolution encouraged observations of people’s similarity to animals.” Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883), for example, “presents a scenario in which noble labour ends ‘in nothing’ because of an urge people and animals share.” Similarly, George John Romanes’ Mental Evolution of Man (1888) argues that “people and animals differ only in degree,” thus challenging the “uniqueness of the human soul.”

On Individual and Species, “in the intense debates that evolutionary theory provoked, the consequences for individual identity become immediately apparent.” August Weismann’s Essays on Heredity (1881-5), for example, argued against Lamarck, “individual organisms lived and died without influencing their ‘immortal’ germ plasm. Here we also have excerpts from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850), who used language to immortalize life that nature, “red in tooth and claw,” constantly threatens to obliterate. Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Biology (1864-7) argued that “selfhood made no sense on an evolutionary scale…the idea of a unique, representative individual loses its meaning” under evolutionary theory. Or as Otis puts it, “the human concept of individuality had no basis in nature. It was rooted in culture and was being imposed on nature by writers who failed to see humanity from a broader, evolutionary perspective.” Thomas Hardy’s Hap (1866) and A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) “subversively suggests that it is more comforting to think of a world directed by a vengeful god than a world without direction or purpose.” Ernst Haeckel’s The Evolution of Man (1874) sees organisms as “texts in which one could read the past.” Samuel Butler’s Unconscious Memory (1880) “described the individual as a ‘link in a chain,’ a body that contained and often re-enacted the past.” Emily Pfeiffer’s Evolution (1880) and To Nature pictures nature as “dread Force,” churning the universe with mindless motion. May Kendall’s amusing, yet moving, Lay of the Trilobite (1885) “invites the reader to imagine life from the perspective of an extinct animal.” And Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Nature is a Heraclitean Fire (1888), like Tennyson’s In Memoriam, “resists science’s claim to replace religion as a provider of inspiration and enlightenment.”

In the final section on Sexual Selection, we see how both scientists and literary writers continued to reinforce cultural renderings of sex. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) “suggested how much was at stake—socially and economically—in the search for a wealthy husband.” Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) provided “anthropomorphic descriptions in which females choose their mates,” but when describing human beings, “Darwin’s account reinforced cultural readings of female desire as a dangerous force that threated the social order.” This is how Otis puts it: “When women did take the active role and select their mates, they were acting in a primitive fashion, revealing people’s animal origins.” Henry Rider Haggard’s She (1887), Constance Naden’s Natural Selection (1887), and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) only further confirms these convictions, using Darwin’s theory of sexual selection to “formulate a problem they had long been describing.”

Sciences of the Mind

The forth theme within this magnificent anthology is Sciences of the Mind. According to Otis, the mental sciences emerged slowly, and amid much controversy. One reason for this is because studies of the mind retained much of their philosophical roots. “The main tenet of the nineteenth-century mental physiology, the conviction that the mind and body were interdependent so that any understanding of the mind must be based on neuroanatomical and neurophysiological knowledge, owes a great deal to John Locke’s belief that true knowledge must be gained through experience, and David Hume’s insistence that philosophy be inductive.” During the nineteenth century, the emergence of mental science came at the heels of several combined factors: “an increasing respect for knowledge gained through experimentation; a conviction that the methods of the physical sciences could be applied to other fields; and an idea that minds, like bodies, had evolved and could be scanned for traces of ancestral forms.”

There was, of course, resistance. But resistance came from those who thought the subject matter—namely, human perceptions, thoughts, and behavior—was “inherently subjective.” Mental scientists in turn sought efforts to persuade readers of the validity of their studies. “In their effort to create an authoritative voice,” Otis writes, “they quoted poets whose insights into the mind were culturally respected.”

In The Relationship between Mind and Body, for example, Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822) describes his sensations after ingesting opium, thus using his “own personal testimony as ‘evidence’…of how changes to the body could alter one’s perceptions.” Marshall Hall’s On Reflex Function (1833) “demonstrated that the body could respond to stimuli through spinal reflexes alone.” James Cowles Prichard’s A Treatise on Insanity (1835) offers portraits of morally insane individuals through “histories, personal idiosyncrasies, and detailed narratives similar to those associated with fictional characters.” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Birthmark (1846) argues that “mind could affect the body,” and that “the body” was a mental construct, “subject to the projections…of the mind.” Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener (1856) “suggested the ways to describe the effects of food and alcohol on behavior, illustrating the complex interplay of constitution and environment.” Thomas Laycock’s Mind and Brain (1860) argues that both hemispheres of the brain are now seen as the seat of “teleorganic processes” and “noetic ideas” of the mind. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) “depicts a woman tainted by hereditary madness and is at time so suspenseful that it nearly maddens the reader.” S. Weir Mitchell “explored the mental and physical roots of personal identity by studying his patient’s phantom limb experiences,” illustrating such experiences in his fictional patient of The Case of George Dedlow (1866). Henry Maudsley’s Body and Mind (1870) observed how women’s reproductive system “powerfully influenced their mental state.” William B. Carpenter’s Principles of Mental Physiology (1874) contended that the interplay between mind and body was extremely complex, “so that no one could define no clear boundary between voluntary and involuntary phenomena.” And William James’ Principles of Psychology (1890), ever the moderate, attempts to steer a middle-way between the “associationists” and “spiritualists” account of our mental life, for both positions, in his estimation, are found wanting. James says, “The spiritualist and the associationist must both be ‘cerebralists,’ [his emphasis] to the extent at least of admitting that certain peculiarities in the way of working their own favorite principles are explicable only by the fact that the brain laws are a codeterminant of the result.”

“If the human mind was housed in a bodily organ, the brain, then, structural studies of that organ might yield valuable information about its function.” In this sense both Physiognomy and Phrenology became a “science of reading.” As skilled interpreters of bodily texts, George Combe’s Elements of Phrenology (1824) and Johann Gaspar Spurzheim’s Phrenology in Connection with the Study of Physiognomy (1826) argue that the relative size of the brain’s component parts act as indicators of potential character and behavior. Novels such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil (1859) “integrated the language of phrenology into physical descriptions of their characters so as to play on readers’ assumptions.”

According to Otis, Mesmerism and Magnetism “gave the subject’s own testimony much greater importance.” Chauncey Hare Townsend’s Facts in Mesmerism (1840), besides quoting both “Coleridge and Newton side by side” to support his claims, sees mesmerism as another technique for exploring the mind. John Elliotson’s Surgical Operations without Pain in the Mesmeric State (1843) viewed his patients as both object and subject. “When literary writers used the same kind of detail, they sometimes convinced readers their imaginary patients were real,” such as in Edgar Allen Poe’s Mesmeric Revelation (1844). Turning to mesmerism to relieve her chronic pain, Harriet Martineau’s Letters on Mesmerism (1845) used “precise visual descriptions and innovative metaphors her readers would have encountered in good realist fiction.” James Esdaile’s Mesmerism in India (1847) reinforced fears of mind control in his reports of mesmerism in India. Robert Browning’s Mesmerism (1855) suggested that “both imagination and mesmerism offered opportunities for controlling the world around one.” And Wilkie Collins’ popular mystery novel The Moonstone (1868) transposed Esdaile’s findings into the British context.

In Dreams and the Unconscious, when Hall “demonstrated that the body could respond to stimuli through spinal reflexes alone,” scientific studies of the “unconscious mind” quickly emerged. These studies provoked wide interest in literary writers as well, such as Charlotte Brontë’s When Thou Sleepest (1837). Frances Power Cobbe’s Unconscious Cerebration: A Psychological Study (1871) also “combines scientific and literary accounts of dreams and sleep.” More importantly, Cobbe proposed that people commit immoral actions all the time in their dreams “without apparent attacks of conscience because consciousness is not needed for thought, and mental activity continues when the will is suspended.” “The existence of an unconscious mind that spoke when the will was relaxed suggested the potential for struggle between different parts of human consciousness,” as memorably played in the fictional case study of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Finally, August Kekulé’s Address to the German Chemical Society (1890) advised his listeners to “‘learn to dream,’ suggesting that rather than forging scientific ideas, reason might destroy them in the process of emergence.”

And in Nervous Exhaustion, Otis observes how nineteenth-century scientists contended that in an exhausted mind, “the will could no longer control emotional impulses, so that one might fall victim to hysteria.” Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Elsie Venner (1861) shows how “overwhelming environmental pressures can wear out a mind.” S. Weir Mitchell’s Wear and Tear, or Hints for the Overworked (1872) “maintained that women were especially vulnerable to nervous exhaustion.” Interestingly enough, both Holmes and Mitchell “wrote fictional as well as actual case studies to illustrate” their views. But Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper (1892) uses personal experience to challenge such scientific theories, often espoused from male physicians of “high standing.”

Social Sciences

The final theme is Social Sciences. During the nineteenth century, “new discoveries and theories increasingly indicated that human beings were subject to natural laws, so that the societies and legal systems they created might be seen to have a foundation in nature.” Like the mental sciences, “social phenomena had been a subject for philosophers.” And like those before them “while struggling to legitimize their field, early sociologists relied heavily on literary techniques.”

Under Creating the Social Sciences, Otis explains that the social sciences “originated not in the field’s scientific and literary allegiances, whose interplay stimulated its growth, but in the issue of government interference.” As such, “the social sciences attempted to build knowledge in order to control and improve societies.” Interestingly enough, while Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon (1791) proposed an architectural panopticon, intended for prisons, workhouses, hospitals, and schools, “which allowed government supervisors to control every aspect of their subjects’ lives,” his Manual of Political Economy (1793) “advised governments not to interfere in economic matters.” This contradictory desire for both freedom and control makes sense when one considers whose freedom is being advocated and who needs to be controlled. According to Otis, “every social scientist sought to legitimize a system in which wealthy subjected managed their lives as they chose, but troublesome paupers were managed for their own good.” “If social laws were an extension of natural ones, then poverty was a natural phenomenon and could be viewed as inevitable,” and perhaps even necessary. Thomas Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) “argued along these lines, proposing that charity, however well-intended, only added to human suffering.” J.R. M‘Culloch’s A Dictionary, Practical, Theoretical, and Historical of Commerce and Commercial Navigation (1832), inspired by Bentham, “offered readers volumes of facts, inscribing knowledge in terms of practical uses rather than intellectual value.” Auguste Comte’s Positive Philosophy (1853) “proposed that human thought had developed in distinct stages, progressing from the theological to the metaphysical to the scientific.” Charles Dickens hoped his novels, such as Bleak House (1852-3) and Hard Times (1854), would “stimulate social reform.” John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism (1861), like Bentham, advocated a “society that would please as many members [i.e. the wealthy elite] as possible.” And Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895) depict “overpopulation in a tragic, despairing light, as a biological fact that no social initiative can overcome.”

Under Race Science, Otis observes that imperial expansion “stimulated naturalists’ efforts to classify unknown plants and animals,” ultimately “encourage[ing] anthropologists to categorize human beings” as well. Both Robert Knox’s The Races of Men (1850) and Sir Francis Galton’s Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (1883) set out a “racial science” of eugenics, which presented the “supplanting of one people by another as a natural, even compassionate process.” Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Yellow Face (1894), however, questions the validity of racial science, suggesting that racial characteristics are often “projected onto subjects by observers.”

In Urban Poverty, an excerpt from Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) argues that “the rich have consciously constructed their city so that its leading citizens never see the slums in which their employees live.” Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851) and Walter Besant’s East London (1899) “described urban problems by creating semi-fictional protagonists, inviting readers to hear the poor ‘speak with their own voices.’” Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855) suggests that “impoverished workers frightened members of the middle classes.” Matthew Arnold’s East London and West London (1867) expressed the desire to “make middle-class readers see and hear the poor.” Thus J.W. Horsley’s Autobiography of a Thief in Thieves’ Language (1879) “envisioned himself a translator, converting the argot of the very poor into a language his readers would understand.” And George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (1898) reinforces Engel’s claim that poverty sustains the wealth of the elite by focusing on an “unbreakable bond between the rich and the poor, implying that even the highest intellectual work is sustained by the sale of the human flesh.”

And the final section to this anthology ends, fittingly, with Degeneration. “When social scientists appropriated Darwin’s natural selection hypothesis…many began to attribute vice to hereditary factors.” Excerpts from Cesare Lombroso’s The Criminal Mind (1876) argues “that a third of all criminals were physical and moral degenerates who had reverted to earlier stages in human development.” Such studies “encouraged scientists all over the world to look for signs of inborn criminality.” George Gissing’s The Nether World (1889) relies heavily on French psychologist Benedict Morel’s argument that mental illness is the accumulation of successive generations of poor urban dwellings, malnutrition, bad air, alcohol, tobacco, ultimately leading to degeneration. Degeneracy was not restricted to the poor, as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) paints a picture of degeneracy among society’s most privileged members. Max Nordau’s Degeneration (1892) argues that “modern stresses like railway travel and urban crowding were overtaxing people’s nervous systems, leaving them unfit for the demands of everyday life.” Sarah Grand’s controversial novel, The Heavenly Twins (1893), depicts degeneration as an avoidable process, proposing that unfit Europeans should be forbidden from breeding, in the interest of maintaining an intelligent, physically healthy population. And Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) likewise sees a “dreaded emasculation as a literal draining.”

A cross-pollination of novels, scientific essays, poems, and textbooks, Laura Otis’ Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century clearly demonstrates the “feedback loop” of influence between literary and scientific writers.