College Literature 32.3 (2005) 182-192
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Science, Pseudo-science, and the Law
It has become a commonplace in the criticism of the Victorian novel that Victorian narrative realism is less an aesthetic activity than an intervention in the culture within which it flourished. The novel helped construct the culture (or, at the very least, put critical pressure on a commonsense understanding [End Page 182] of the culture) more than it merely reflected the culture, to paraphrase George Eliot's famous formulation, in the defective mirror of the mind of the novelist. The three books under consideration here all demonstrate the Victorian novel's intimate engagement with what we might call extra-literary matters while at the same time exploring the novel's particular power to influence cultural attitudes (that is, to affect readers' frames of mind and understanding) on such matters.
In The Serious Pleasures of Suspense, for instance, Caroline Levine demonstrates how the alignment of narrative realism and suspense implicates the novel in a "rigorous political and epistemological training" (2). Levine claims to have uncovered "a largely forgotten Victorian idea: the union of a skeptical realist epistemology with a suspenseful narrative form" (12), or, as she puts it most simply in reference to John Ruskin's notions of realism in Modern Painters, the application of "the model of scientific experiment to the arts" (13). Victorian realism, she argues, as it exploits the uncertainty required for narrative suspense, requires readers to suspend judgment, to be both skeptical and open to the world made available through realism. Such suspension of judgment requires humility, a sense of the limitations of our own knowledge. Echoing the Socratic notion of the necessity to know that we don't know, Levine writes in one of her glosses on Ruskin, "We must learn to doubt our own knowledge, to celebrate our own ignorance. Only when we are humbled may we come to examine social life skeptically and critically" (8). The "pleasures of suspense" then depend on limitations of knowledge, and the prospect of those limitations being transcended through new knowledge; what Levine, in quoting Ruskin, refers to as "going on to know" produces "the joy of self-suspension that haunts Victorian knowledge seeking" (9). Such formulations move Levine's argument away from scientific epistemology and into philosophical hermeneutics (the philosophy of how we acquire understanding), a move about which I will have more to say later.
While Levine focuses her readings of Ruskin, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Eliot, Henry James, and Walter Pater (in roughly chronological order) on the intersection between scientific method and narrative suspense, Angelique Richardson's Love and Eugenics in the Nineteenth Century explores the ways in which the novelists Sarah Grand and George Egerton, both of whom were associated with the idea of the "New Woman" in the 1890s, developed a line of thought that Richardson calls "eugenic feminism" (9), and how Mona Caird, also a "New Woman" novelist, reacted against such thought. Richardson reads the first two novelists to show how they replaced the conventional romance plot with its emphasis on male-centered passion with a plot that emphasized female-centered rational reproduction. In order to contextualize (and validate) such a reading, she demonstrates how powerfully [End Page 183] "the political and the social were displaced onto the biological" in the late nineteenth century (24). What such a move meant most simply is that problems that had been associated with environment—e.g. the health and behavior of the working (or unemployed) urban poor—were given a biological explanation, the poor figured as another race. Such texts as the Salvation Army founder William Booth's...