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  • Women & Scientific Discourse
  • Roger Luckhurst
Patricia Murphy. In Science’s Shadow: Literary Constructions of Late Victorian Women. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006. ix + 239 pp. $39.95

Murphy's Thesis is that although there has been a consistent masculine identification of the world of science, the late Victorians began intensely to scientize this gender divide itself, forcibly excluding women from scientific discourse for a whole new set of evolutionary reasons. After the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man in 1871, Murphy contends, evolutionary theory provided the theoretical framework to render cultural differences biological and essential. A concerted body of commentary appeared from the 1870s to the 1890s to reinforce this belief. An introductory chapter samples Darwin’s declarations as to the innate inferiority of women in strength [End Page 323] and intellect, and follows this discourse through the familiar territory of essays such as Henry Maudsley’s “Sex in Mind and in Education” (1874), which warns of likely mental imbalance in women if given equal rights to education, and Herbert Spencer’s “Psychology of the Sexes” (1873). Murphy also spends some time with the delightful views of the anthropologist J. McGrigor Allan, whose essay “On the Real Differences in the Minds of Men and Women” appeared in 1869 (Murphy quotes him as saying, “‘In reflective power, woman is utterly unable to compete with man’”). It is worth remembering that this was just the sort of material on which so much of Darwin’s commentary in Descent of Man depended.

What follows are five chapters offering detailed close readings of mainly literary texts, exploring how the relationship of women and science appeared in Victorian culture after 1871. In Murphy’s view, these reiterate the same narrative: the difficulty of women entering a discourse that has just begun to pathologize them in new ways. She looks at Constance Naden’s poetry of the 1880s, in particular her “Evolutional Erotics” written after her training in science at Mason College in Birmingham. She concludes that despite the comic and sometimes subversive appropriation of the language of sexual selection, the poetry conveys that sense that “a woman cannot participate unproblematically as an authoritative voice in the rarefied field of scientific endeavour.” This is followed by a chapter on Thomas Hardy’s Two on a Tower (1882), in a plot which brings a solitary, masculine world of abstract astronomy crashing down with the intrusion of feminine desire. Similarly, a chapter on Wilkie Collins’s late novel, Heart and Science (1883), uses the trappings of sensation fiction to regard a woman’s interest in science as part of her lunacy. In the next and probably the most interesting chapter (perhaps by virtue of moving away from these well-known literary examples), Murphy examines the three volumes of memoirs published by Marianne North in 1892–1893. North was a famous botanist, painter and traveller, who journeyed across the globe as one of Kew Gardens’s informal network of field workers, drawing exotic plants and species. Despite an inevitably more complex, conflicted relationship to science than either Hardy’s awkward plotting or Collins’s sensation histrionics allow, Murphy confirms a similar story of exclusion. North’s travel narratives efface not only her femininity but awkwardly suppress the traditional ventriloquy of the male voice in travel narratives too, presenting us with a “white gender-neutral entity who elides definitive categorisation.” There seems little place for female self-expression [End Page 324] here, either. The study ends with a chapter on Charles Reade’s A Woman-Hater (1877), ostensibly a novel sympathetic to women seeking to enter the world of professional science and medicine. Reade’s apparently sympathetic portrait, however, is saturated with the same ideological biases: “the text followed a pronounced—and troubling—essentialist vein in arguing that women are innately qualified for medical practice” due to their biologised sympathetic abilities. The book has a brief afterword which suggests that the Gothic fictions of the 1880s and 1890s, principally Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Dracula, do not offer much in the way of new directions.

Professor Murphy is an able literary critic and the best parts of this book are the close...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 323-326
Launched on MUSE
2008-08-09
Open Access
No
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