The Doctor in the Victorian Novel: Family Practices (review)
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Reviewed by
Tabitha Sparks. The Doctor in the Victorian Novel: Family Practices. Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2009. vii + 177 pp. $99.95 (978-0-7546-6802-2).

Tabitha Sparks's book traces the changing role and representation of the physician figure in the Victorian novel, particularly in relation to the marriage plot, a central device of late Romantic and early Victorian fiction but one that was increasingly displaced by the rise of Modernism and literary realism. In so doing she seeks to cast light on a much broader issue, namely the complex relations within Victorian culture between affective intersubjectivity and the detached abstractions of positivist rationalism. Chapter 1 establishes this essential tension [End Page 148] through a comparison of Harriet Martineau's little-known Deerbrook (1839) and George Eliot's celebrated Middlemarch (1871-72), suggesting that while the former presents its physician hero as a socially and psychologically rounded subject, the demise of Eliot's Tertius Lydgate can be read metonymically as the failure of later Victorian society to reconcile the values of scientific empiricism with those of human emotion. Chapter 2 extends this analysis through a close reading of George MacDonald's Adela Cathcart (1864), arguing that the novel can be seen as an attempt to assert the primacy of a human-centered subjectivity against the rising tide of a scientistic cultural materialism. Chapters 3 and 4 likewise use the novels of Mary Braddon, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Wilkie Collins to explore midcentury relations between the feminized virtues of desire, compassion, and imagination and the hyper-masculinized rationalism, even dispassionate cruelty, of scientific investigation, particularly vivisection. In the final two chapters, meanwhile, Sparks turns her attention to the late Victorian figure of the "new woman."

Sparks's book is an intelligent, highly readable, and perceptive work of literary scholarship, consistently sophisticated and insightful. What is rather disappointing for the historian, however, is her resolute lack of interest in, or engagement with, the political, cultural, or ideological substance of medical knowledge and practice. From the work of Mary Poovey in the 1990s to the more recent development of literature and science there have been numerous literary scholars who have effected a genuine engagement with historical study just as there are historians of science and medicine who have benefitted from the methodological and analytical insights of their colleagues in English and related literature. The field of Victorian studies has provided perhaps the most important crucible for this interdisciplinary exchange, and it is therefore somewhat surprising that Sparks is so avowedly opposed to such a project. As she states in her introduction, "Numerous books have correlated medical and scientific developments and Victorian literature, but . . . I focus on the figure of the Victorian doctor not to uncover developments or trends in the theory of medicine, nor to trace commonalities in the imaginative work or conceptual vocabularies of medicine and literature. Instead, I use the figure of the doctor to chart the sustainability of the Victorian novel's central imaginative structure, the marriage plot" (pp. 2-3). Later she even goes so far as to suggest that much of the work in literature and science is merely a "response to a market culture" that "devalues the study of the humanities" unless it "externaliz[es] its insights in more commercially influential spheres" (p. 11). Now, while I would resolutely oppose any suggestion that literary studies, or any branch of the humanities for that matter, should become a mere handmaiden for supposedly reflexive scientific practice, to dismiss a genuine interdisciplinary engagement in such a way is unfortunate to say the least. It is also to the book's detriment, as for all her literary sophistication, Sparks's treatment of medicine itself can best be described as naïve. Much of the historiography she cites is over twenty years old, and she is prone to vague generalizations about the rise of "professional" or "scientific" medicine that present medical knowledge, culture, and practice as unproblematic monolithic absolutes. There is no sense that medicine was an agent in shaping its own popular perception and that this was a co-constitutive [End Page 149] process played out across the broad spectrum of textual representation. At times this willful neglect of...


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