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Reviewed by:
  • Wilkie Collins, Medicine and the Gothic
  • Kelly L. Bezio
Laurence Talairach-Vielmas. Wilkie Collins, Medicine and the Gothic. Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 2009. 224 pp. $85.00.

Wilkie Collins, Medicine and the Gothic brings a historicist methodology to the study of the Gothic genre as developed by Wilkie Collins, a popular English novelist in the Victorian era. The sixth book in the Gothic Literary Studies series, this volume tracks chronologically Collins’s canonical and lesser-known fiction within contemporary scientific, medical, and psychological discourses. For better or for worse, the term “medicine” referenced in the title of Talairach-Vielmas’s book encapsulates several disciplines—science, psychiatry, medical practice, evolutionary [End Page 495] and degeneration theorization, to name a few. By situating these fields of inquiry under the umbrella of medicine, it seems that the author sought to focus on how knowledge of the body influenced Collins’s writing (although she leaves the conceptual advantages of such a usage unexplained). Drawing on the works of alienist Henry Maudsley, Charles Darwin, and many others, Laurence Talairach-Vielmas decisively shows how Victorian medical science influenced Collins’s fiction, providing him with ample raw material for updating Gothic devices, motifs, and locales. His stories aimed to express contemporary concerns about societal mores, gender roles, and the body as they were implicated within fields that took human beings as their objects of study.

Talairach-Vielmas begins with monomania in Collins’s early sensation fiction and moves in succeeding chapters through themes of the embodied self, biological control and gender, bestiality and human nature, and biological determinism found in his later novels. Each chapter offers close readings of his novels that draw out how a particular way of thinking about body and mind, derived from a specific discipline, transforms familiar Gothic conventions.

Poor Miss Finch (1972), for instance, reworks the traditional Gothic motif of female confinement by depicting the protagonist Lucilla as psychologically imprisoned by the villain Nugent, who impersonates her lover (his twin brother Oscar) in order to marry Lucilla himself. Collins depicts his characters’ responses to this situation as physiological, Talairach-Vielmas argues, thereby medicalizing the Gothic. Prostrated by nervous exhaustion, Lucilla returns to blindness, and Nugent surrenders to the impulses of his animal spirits, invoking Darwinian-inspired fears that beneath the veneer of civilization seethed man’s uncontrollable bestiality (117–18). Especially for readers familiar with Romantic-era Gothic conventions found in classic examples of the genre, such as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Talairach-Vielmas’s analysis provides a detailed exegesis of the genre’s capaciousness. She shows how Gothic fiction opens a conceptual space for exploring mutually implicated concerns about scientific knowledge and embodied societies of the nineteenth-century England.

She resists the temptation to impose a systematic schema on Collins’s oeuvre of medicalized Gothic novels. Preferring instead to unpack each novel’s mobilization of specific medical ideas, Talairach-Vielmas offers fine-grained historical analysis of each story as a node within social and medical discourses. Whereas in earlier texts diseases helped to materialize concerns about social classes becoming indistinct, in the 1880s, Collins positioned medicine itself as the antagonist. The Woman in White (1859–60) uses monomania and images of contagion to represent fears about [End Page 496] social mobility, as romance blossoms between heiress Laura Fairlie and artist Walter Hartwright (49–50). In contrast, Jezebel’s Daughter (1880) and Heart and Science (1883) situate poisoning and vivisection, respectively, as manifestations of the literal “entrapping [of] real women’s bodies within a medical discourse designed to institutionalize and enforce prescribed female roles” (139). Works such as “I Say No” (1884) and The Legacy of Cain (1888) reveal a marked ambivalence on Collins’s part toward the promises of medical science to uncover the mysteries of the natural world, particularly those supposedly answered by arguments for biological determinism. This thoroughly researched volume collates medical ideas with literature to enrich our understanding of Collins’s Gothic.

However, Wilkie Collins, Medicine and the Gothic will leave readers mystified as to the larger stakes of the project. Although mentioning predecessors Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley—authors canonized...


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pp. 495-497
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