- Charles Dickens and the Sciences of Childhood: Popular Medicine, Child Health, and Victorian Culture by Katharina Boehm
Katharina Boehm’s Charles Dickens and the Sciences of Childhood revisits the Dickensian child through the lenses of medical health and popular science. Boehm departs from earlier work by Peter Coveney and Malcolm Andrews [End Page 231] on Dickens’ conceptualization of a spiritual, restorative childhood inherited from Romanticism, and instead locates Dickens among Victorians invested in the child’s biological development. For scholars less interested in Dickens than in children’s literature, this historical monograph calls attention to how emergent mid-nineteenth-century medical fields like pediatrics and child psychology influenced constructions of childhood as a discrete period in human development. According to Boehm, Dickens and his contemporaries provided biological, medical, and psychological grounds for the modern belief that children are uniquely different from adults.
This timely book supplements prominent, recent studies in Victorian child medicine, including Sally Shuttleworth’s The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science, and Medicine, 1840–1900 (2010) and Peter Kirby’s Child Workers and Industrial Health in Britain, 1780–1850 (2013). Boehm’s material turn ensures that she covers different territory than Peter Merchant and Catherine Waters’ edited collection, Dickens and the Imagined Child (2015), although her work on childhood memories promises productive intersections. Boehm takes a wide view of Dickens’ career, with attention to novels, journalism, popular shows, medical pamphlets, and archival materials, and her tightly organized book on such a prolific creator might inspire fellow scholars struggling to tidy an unruly project.
Boehm persuasively argues that Dickens and Victorian scientists were mutually influential, even if this seems counterintuitive given Dickens’ well-documented antipathy to scientific rationalism. Through his tireless investment in charitable institutions, Dickens formed close partnerships with rising stars in the scientific community and remained informed of the latest research. While his novels evince skepticism about strictly rational implementations of utilitarian theories, Dickens engaged enthusiastically with less established medical fields and with fringe sciences that bordered on popular entertainment, where the authority of experts held less sway over public dialogue. In his writing, he was less concerned with advocating particular theories or medical practices than with critiquing how families and institutions nurtured young people.
Boehm sets the tone, in chapter 1, with a discussion of Dickens’ experimentation with mesmerism and his friendship with his family doctor, mesmerist John Elliotson. Using instruction manuals and public displays of mesmerism, Boehm establishes that mesmerists favored child subjects because their mental pliancy and physical vulnerability allowed for convincing, authentic performances before skeptical audiences. While there are few direct references to mesmerism in Oliver Twist (1837–39), which Dickens was writing at the time of his own introduction to this practice, Oliver’s notorious passivity and silence allow his character to function for Dickens’ audience like a [End Page 232] mesmerized child on display. In the novel and in the Victorian understanding of mesmerism, the child is described as a “symbolic blank and passive instrument of knowledge” that joins together socially divided audiences through sympathy (44).
This first chapter exemplifies Boehm’s innovative methodology. Despite venturing far from literature to explore archival materials, Boehm never falls back on an imprecise lineage of influence, but meticulously documents what Dickens read and whom he knew during specific stages of his writing career. This biographical specificity allows Boehm greater creativity in locating intersections between Dickens and his contemporaries’ accounts of science and childhood. Instead of a dutiful tally of mesmeric references in Dickens’ oeuvre, for instance, Boehm delivers a nuanced reading of the aesthetic potential of mesmerists’ child subjects. This approach is a model for scholars who seek inventive ways to approach cultural and historical context while remaining grounded in material evidence.
In a chapter of strong interest to children’s literature scholars, Boehm investigates the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, an institution supported by J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan copyright in 1929 and thereafter, but at one time associated with its staunch defender, Charles Dickens. In a period when child...