Literature and Medicine in Nineteenth-Century Britain: From Mary Shelley to George Eliot

By Dawson, Gowan | The Byron Journal, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Literature and Medicine in Nineteenth-Century Britain: From Mary Shelley to George Eliot


Dawson, Gowan, The Byron Journal


LITERATURE AND MEDICINE IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY BRITAIN: FROM MARY SHELLEY TO GEORGE ELIOT. By Janis McLarren Caldwell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. xi + 198. ISBN 0-521-84334-0. £45.00.

While Byron does not feature in the index to this book, his name nevertheless appears on several occasions, and his famous contention in Manfred that we are 'Half dust, half deity, alike unfit / To sink or soar' is in fact central to Janis McLarren Caldwell's concern with the early nineteenth century's endeavour to maintain a genuine synthesis between the sacred and the secular. This 'both-and position', as Caldwell terms it, meant that individuals could hold both empirical and religious views without any inconsistency or bad faith, as is seen most clearly in the tradition of natural theology, which, with its reading of the world through the Book of Nature as well as the Book of Scripture, 'allowed for incommensurate epistemologies to coexist within the same discourse'. In both literature and medicine, according to Caldwell, this dualistic tradition initiated a new intellectual mode that 'accepted disjunctions between the two ways of knowing' by adopting an 'interpretative method which tacked back and forth between physical evidence and inner, imaginative understanding'. Such 'Romantic materialism', a phrase which Caldwell borrows from Gillian Beer's Darwin's Plots, manifests itself, in medicine, in the distinctly early nineteenth-century emphasis on reconciling the patient's own narrative account of their illness with the somatic evidence afforded by the doctor's physical examination, and, in literature, in the startling juxtaposition of the natural and the spiritual, the flesh and the soul, to be found in such well-known prose works of the period as Frankenstein, Sartor Resartus and Wuthering Heights. The Romantic materialist tendency to circle between contrasting ways of knowing, moreover, mirrors the 'hermeneutic stance' which Caldwell, drawing heavily on Paul Ricoeur, adopts in her close readings of various texts by Mary Shelley, Thomas Carlyle, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, Charles Darwin and George Eliot.

There is much to praise in Caldwell's account of what she designates a 'remarkable episode in the history of literature and medicine', not least her very necessary rebuttal of recent attempts, in literature and medicine scholarship, to apply Michel Foucault's conception of clinical medicine - as articulated in The Birth of the Clinic - to the specific context of early nineteenth-century Britain. British medical practitioners, as Caldwell shows, did not wield the same disciplinary power as their clinical counterparts in France, and, like Tertius Lydgate in Middlemarch, had often instead to defer to the opinions of their socially superior patrons, thereby necessitating a complex negotiation between the patient's own anecdotal account of their aliments and more scientific sources of medical information which Caldwell sees as one of the hallmarks of Romantic materialism. …

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