restricted access Doctoring the Novel: Medicine and Quackery from Shelley to Doyle by Sylvia A. Pamboukian (review)
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Reviewed by
Sylvia A. Pamboukian. Doctoring the Novel: Medicine and Quackery from Shelley to Doyle. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012. xiv + 207 pp. $49.95 (978-0-8214-1990-8).

Sylvia Pamboukian’s exploration of the boundaries between medicine and quackery across the nineteenth century takes a form that will be familiar to anyone who has read much in the way of Victorian literary analysis. The book is composed of an introduction, conclusion, and five chapters. Though there is a clear sense of chronological development across the book as a whole, each of these chapters essentially represents a stand-alone essay using a text, or set of texts, to examine one aspect of a broader analytical project. In Pamboukian’s case, this project is to explore “specific configurations of quackery in literature beyond the knee-jerk definitions of quackery as a lack of scientific knowledge or as bizarre practices by strange practitioners” (pp. 5–6). Pamboukian’s book represents another example of the attractiveness of medical subject matter to Victorian literary scholars. However, it also represent the limitations of that endeavor so long as it remains, as here, relatively disconnected from an established body of empirically grounded and contextually sensitive historical scholarship.

Doctoring the Novel opens with an introduction in which the author questions the existence of any hard or fast boundary between the image of the modern medical practitioner as man of science and that of the quack as imposter or salesman, noting that “the very notions of regular, acceptable, progressive, what I call orthodox, practice and quack practices must be determined by a variety of cultural codes” (p. 6). She likewise questions the fixity of terms such as “professional” and “quack.” All [End Page 688] this will be pretty familiar to most readers, and indeed Pamboukian refers to the work of several established historians including Roy Porter and Roger Cooter. The literary case studies begin in earnest with chapter 1, in which the author explores the problematic connotations of early nineteenth-century anatomy by reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein against the debates surrounding body snatching and dissection in the later 1820s and early 1830s. Chapter 2 uses Little Dorrit and Bleak House to demonstrate the ways in which Dickens sought to present medicine as uniquely steeped in Christian virtue in contrast to other “emerging professions” (p. 53). Meanwhile, chapter 3 proposes to use the character of Dr. John Graham Bretton in Charlotte Brontë’s Vilette to trouble the boundary between orthodoxy and quackery. Chapter 4 then examines the ambiguous distinction between medicines and poisons in mid-Victorian society through a discussion of Wilkie Collins’s Armadale. Finally, chapter 5 explores the gulf between medical idealism and medical reality in the works of Arthur Conan Doyle before a brief conclusion ties the threads together.

Doctoring the Novel provides plenty of food for thought in terms of literary analysis; chapters 4 and 5 are particularly strong. Her discussion of poisons is articulate and well supported by a novel in which both the substances themselves and the labels on the bottles that contain them prove to be highly deceptive. Likewise, her reading of Conan Doyle’s own experiences as a neophyte medical practitioner alongside The Stark Munro Letters nicely emphasizes the ease, perhaps even the necessity, by which aspirant professionals engaged in the stereotyped behaviors of the quack, including fraudulent duplicity and shameless self-promotion. However, while these two chapters have a clear and distinct analytical framework, the same is not necessarily true of the three that precede them. Most problematic of all is the stability of Pamboukian’s principal category of analysis, “quackery.” After defining the term in its historical context in the introduction, she spends much of the first half of the book using it to mean whatever she wants it to mean. In many cases, she simply treats it as a synonym for imposture, unreliability, or even ambiguity. In others it performs a more interpretive function along the lines of “queering.” Hence, in chapter 1 she asserts that both Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Parliamentary Select Committee’s Report on Anatomy of 1828 reveal that anatomy could be “the queen of the medical sciences” or condemned...