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"Phantoms Arising from the Scenes ofOurToo-Long Neglect": Charles Dickens, Victorian Chemistry, and the Folklore ofthe Ghost Louise Henson Dickens's interest in science was intimately bound up with his social and political ideals. Antipathetic to the politics of"Old England" and sensitive to the abuses of capitalist economics, his criticism of contemporary social policy was grounded in mid-Victorian notions of the healthy body politic. Optimistic theories about efficient energy circulation, whichinformedeconomicdiscourse, medicalthinking, and proposals for urban development and publichealth reform, were central to middle-class conceptions of the social body.1 Dickens's therapeutic and reforming interests centred around the theories and techniques associated with animal magnetism and sanitary science, both ofwhich familiarized him with physical models of the natural and the animal economy. John Elliotson's investigations into the sensational powers of animal magnetism, Karl von Reichenbach's researches into his hypothetical odyle, and themiasmahypothesis promulgated byDickens's associates at the Board of Health, were all concerned with the imponderable powers of nature and their influence on the animal economy. These scientific researches correlated the vital functions of the human body with the laws ofthe physical world. The influence of imponderable emanations and subtle forces on the sensitive bodywas a frequent subjectofdiscussion in Dickens's periodicals. HottseholdWords anaAllthe YearRoundpromoted an interchange between the enduring beliefs of folk tradition — ghosts, witchcraft, and precognition, for example — and an alternative scientific wisdom. Indeed, Dickens and volume 26 number 1 "Phantoms Arising from the Scenes ofOur Too-Long Neglect" his journalists sought to combatsuperstition byextendinghypothetical forces of nature into the realms traditionally perceived to be supernatural.2This paper will concentrate on the miasma hypothesis and the sinister ghost story developed by Dickens and hisjournalists to support theworkofthe Board ofHealth. This ghoststoryalso featured, as I will demonstrate, as an aspect ofDickens's social criticism in Bleak House. Speculations about the extent to which the human body might be sensitive to the forces ofnature, and thus influenced in subtle ways, had underpinned the developing sciences ofhealth and hygiene from the late eighteenth century, when environmental ma meteorological factors began to be studied in relation to their influence on health and well being (Sutton 377). Victorian sanitarians agreed that the physical squalor of the urban slums was the most stubborn obstacle to social progress. Publichealthwas thus prioritizedamongallOthersocial reform projects, with sanitaryscience central to middle-class ambitions for urban development. Dickens's efforts on behalfofpublie health reform began in the early 1840s, andhewas probablyas well informedon the teachings of the sanitarians as any layman could be. ¡His, brother-in-law, Henry Austin, was secretary to the Board of Health ffom 1848 and advised Dickens on the many forceful and imaginative public health articles thatappearedinHouseholdWords. Dickenswasalso Bfrsonallyacquainted with Thomas Southwood Smith from the 18401, when Smith was a leading figure in sanitary reform, and with the chemist Lyon Playfair. The epidemic diseases that struckthe country in the decades of the mid-nineteenth century included the flpii outbreak of cholera in England in 1831 andsuccessiveepidemics ofinfluenza, smallpox, scarlet fever, and typhus. The rapid spread ofthese diseases through the urban centres testified to the inadequacyofcurrentpolicy,Thecall fornational fast days during cholera epidemics was met with derision in the press, including Household Words} Sanitarians taught that an understanding ofthelaws ofchemistryandofhuman physiologywere fundamental to the improvement ofpublichealth. Prior to the adventofmicrobiology, diseasewas viewed as a problem ofchemistry and its ability to identify the chemical substances likely to cause it (Gibson and Farrar 248). The Victorian Review (20Q0) L. Henson organic chemistry of Justus von Liebig had wide application in physiology, agriculture, and sanitation, and had a profound influence on contemporary chemists and sanitarians. Dickens himselfexpressed respect and admiration for Liebig's work, and indeed his authority on the chemistry of life and death was well represented in Dickens's periodicals.4 Liebigargued thatputrefaction was a crucialprocess in the natural economyand avitalstagein long-term agricultural productivity (Hamlin 384). His mineral theory of manures showed that plants required potassium and phosphate, nutrients that might be supplied from waste products, such as sewage and the organic remains of the decomposing animal body (Hamlin 382-83). The process of decomposition reduced these essential materials, transforming organic molecules into the smallerinorganicsubstanceswhichwere taken in by the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 6-23
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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