In Thomas Hardy’s Brains, Suzanne Keen makes a persuasive case for reading Thomas Hardy’s poetry and prose alongside the psychology and neurology of his time. While literary scholars have often applied twentieth-century psychological approaches to Hardy’s works, especially the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, these are sources that Hardy probably never encountered in his lifetime (due to his limited knowledge of German, among other reasons). By contrast, Hardy was well-versed in the psychological theories of Henry Maudsley, Théodule Ribot, Henry Head, Herbert Spencer, T. H. Huxley, Charles Darwin, William James, and G. H. Lewes (5, 18). Hardy was an adept “student of psychology” and “reader of neurology” throughout his career, Keen argues, particularly during the 1880s, as he was preparing to write his neurologically-themed verse drama, The Dynasts (1904, 1906, 1908)(6). His psychological expertise came not just from extensive reading but also from conversations with leading scientists such as James Crichton Browne, the co-founder of the journal Brain (1878-present). Although Hardy’s interest in evolutionary science, particularly Darwin’s work, has been well documented by critics, he also possessed “up-to-date knowledge of the psychology of his day,” a fact that has been less widely acknowledged (20).
Thomas Hardy’s Brains aims to rectify this oversight and inspire other scholars to follow suit. Utilizing Hardy’s unpublished literary notebooks, Keen is able to pinpoint which authors Hardy read and when. She also demonstrates how specific psychological ideas find expression in his fiction. Her work is thus particularly valuable as a source study, although this book has broader appeal for Hardy scholars and students of Victorian psychology. [End Page 405]
In terms of methodology, Keen’s book combines two related strands of contemporary literary criticism: historical study of the intersections between Victorian literature and science (practiced by Nicholas Dames, Alan Richardson, Jill Matus, and Vanessa Ryan, among others) and cognitive literary theory, exemplified by writers such as Alan Palmer, Patrick Colm Hogan, and Lisa Zunshine. It is difficult to say which approach predominates in her work. Whereas chapter 1 is a historically-based source study of Hardy’s psychological readings, chapter 2 draws on cognitive literary theory, particularly Alan Palmer’s work on intermental thinking, to illuminate Hardy’s narrative technique. Chapter 5, meanwhile, draws on a broad range of cognitive literary theory—including Keen’s own previous work, Empathy and the Novel (2007)—to discuss the expression of empathy in Hardy’s works. Even the chapters with a theoretical bias are rich in historical detail, showing that Keen can successfully combine historical and cognitive theoretical approaches. These two schools of thought all too rarely cohere in practice, for all of their apparent similarities.
Keen is also adept at analyzing literary form, particularly in the sections on verse, wherein her expertise as a published poet stands her in good stead. The sections on Hardy’s novels likewise skillfully explain interactions between psychological content and literary form. In chapter 2, for instance, Keen discusses Hardy’s reliance on “thought report” (Palmer’s term) over other types of narration, such as free indirect discourse. Hardy’s unusual narrative style allowed him to “report conditions of mind of which the character remains unaware,” thus emphasizing his characters’ fateful ignorance of key information (64). This emphasis gels with Hardy’s pessimistic view of human destiny; his characters “proceed unaware of the rigged system that has made them feeling beings in a universe of action they cannot control” (52). While this chapter predominantly takes a cognitive approach to Hardy’s work, Keen also shows that Hardy’s contemporaries noticed his interest in psychology. Andrew Lang, for instance, criticized Hardy for using “language like that of Herbert Spencer” to describe the thoughts and feelings of common people, while sexologist Havelock Ellis lauded Hardy’s portrayal of instinct as a motive force (57, 83).
While Keen successfully balances historical and cognitive approaches and deftly analyzes literary form, her book at times lacks focus. She has...