- Reviewed by
The anti-vaccination movement in England during the latter half of the nineteenth century, despite its medical, political, and cultural significance, has scarcely been [End Page 532] noticed—much less analyzed—by historians of the Victorian period. Nadja Durbach's Bodily Matters is one of the very few recent works to redress this historiographical oversight. Drawing on a variety of published as well as unpublished documents—including Parliamentary papers, newspapers and periodicals, and the archives of a wide variety of English libraries and public records offices—Durbach provides a lively and informed account of this fascinating episode in Victorian history. Durbach focuses on the period from the enactment of the Compulsory Vaccination Act in 1853 until 1907, when magistrates were authorized to grant numerous exemptions to parents who "conscientiously objected" to compulsory vaccination of their children. In one sense, the 1907 decision marked a major victory for popular protest against growing state intervention in the late Victorian period. But anti-vaccination, as Durbach demonstrates, was far more complex an issue than merely one of ever-increasing state control.
The strength of Bodily Matters is its nuanced account of the multiple factors at play in late-Victorian vaccination debates. Durbach is at her surest when she details the "events of the resistance campaign and the richness of its rhetorical strategies" (11). She accomplishes this by locating the anti-vaccination movement within a broad range of dissenting movements that formed the "vibrant culture of political protest and social reform that was characteristic of the second half of the nineteenth century" (11). Anti-vaccinationism grew, in part, "out of well-established traditions of medical dissent that pitted [certain segments] of the people against the alliance of orthodox medicine and a bureaucratic state" (36). Durbach shows how the anti-vaccinationists found allies within other movements by "tapping into concerns over working-class exploitation," such as those at the heart of the cooperative and trade unionist agitation. Other allies were to be found among the ranks of Noncomformists and relatively new alternatives such as spiritualism, theosophy, and Swedenborgianism. These particular movements were tied together by similar theories of the relationship between physical and spiritual health. Vaccination was considered an invasion of both the bodies and minds of those vaccinated. Equally crucial was the perception of enthusiastic groups of progressive and humanitarian activists who added the anti-vaccination cause to their social and political agendas. Rounding out this "community of dissent," female "social reformers began to absorb anti-vaccinationism into their feminist platform[s]" (46).
Anti-vaccinationism was, thus, a movement that cut across both class and gender lines. The populist rhetoric of anti-vaccinationism appealed to middle, lower middle, and working classes, as well as to certain members of the gentry. This flexible rhetoric "found its clearest expression in the language of citizenship that emphasized the rights of the freeborn" English men and women (71). Durbach also shows how anti-vaccinationism forced a clarification of certain elements of Victorian liberalism. She is careful to emphasize, however, that this cross-class campaign was not without considerable tension: "The classed nature of the implementation of vaccination policy meant that the values and goals of [anti-vaccination] campaigners were sometimes in conflict" (92). Members of the middle and upper classes had financial and political resources to resist the lancet of vaccination that most working-class agitators simply did not possess.
As its title implies, Durbach's study focuses on changing concepts of the body in late-nineteenth-century England. Chapter 5, "Vampire, Vivisectors, and the Victorian Body," is, arguably, the most provocative section of the book. "By scarifying the flesh and introducing disease into the system," as its opponents maintained, "vaccination threatened [End Page 533] strongly held beliefs regarding bodily integrity and blood purity. It also wielded the power . . . to transform the individual into something 'other,' a monstrous version of the self" (113). The language of violation, contamination, and degeneration was central to the anti-vaccination campaign, particularly as articulated in fears about personal...