- Thomas Hardy’s Brains: Psychology, Neurology, and Hardy’s Imagination by Suzanne Keen
One of the most eye-catching strands of Thomas Hardy scholarship over the past thirty years—shaped variously by Geoffrey Thurley, Christopher Lane, Robert Langbaum, and J. Hillis Miller—has been the careful consideration of Hardy’s abiding interest in theories of affective psychology, consciousness, and gendered subjectivity. The main problem with this otherwise probing research has been its tendency to construe Hardy’s fictional protagonists through the prism of Freudian and Jungian conceptions that Hardy would have known very little about. What Suzanne Keen does in Thomas Hardy’s Brains: Psychology, Neurology, and Hardy’s Imagination is to sedulously chart the nature and extent of Hardy’s alertness to the scientific authorities of his era. She is concerned especially with the ways in which a diverse array of psychological concerns and tropes resonate in specific Wessex novels.
Keen’s first chapter documents Hardy’s lively imaginative grasp of the neurological and psychological ideas synonymous with Henry Maudsley, Herbert Spencer, T. H. Huxley, William James, and G. H. Lewes, among others. Keen, in a striking contention, invites us to measure Maudsley’s seminal account of the “pathological development of inherited disease” against Hardy’s ominous portrayal of the “congenital mental debilities” which afflict the Fawley clan in Jude the Obscure (1895)(49). Keen does well to prioritize this link—Maudsley, as a medico-psychological expert with an agnostic and Darwinian outlook, would have appealed to a Hardy intrigued by the complex physiology of mind.
Keen demonstrates that Hardy’s psychological insights derived not only from adventurously eclectic reading, but also from intellectual exchanges with eminent scientists, such as the neurologist Henry Head and the pioneering medical psychiatrist James Crichton Browne (40). Browne co-founded the journal Brain in 1878, and Keen illustrates how “interdisciplinary cross-pollination occurred” as a consequence of these debates (40). While there is a vast corpus of secondary scholarship on Hardy’s fascination with evolutionary science, not enough has been said about the ways in which Hardy’s unpublished literary notebooks imply a strong interest in Browne’s theories about the anatomy of the human brain.
Keen’s core chapters owe a notable debt to the historical analysis of overlaps between Victorian literature and the evolving sciences of humankind by Gillian Beer, [End Page 157] George Levine, and Michael Zeitler. Yet Keen, as shown by her fine monograph Empathy and the Novel (2007), also relishes the burgeoning public and academic interest in cognitive evolutionary psychology and cognitive linguistics—a scholarly field outlined by Lisa Zunshine’s edited volume Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies (2010). The advantage of Keen’s methodology is that while it contributes to literary-theoretical debates about links between cultural criticism and human cognition, it also supplies a robust reading of Hardy’s narrative strategies which is anchored in precise historical detail. This lends compelling force to Keen’s conclusion that Hardy was much more than a “folk-psychologist perennially fascinated by character-revealing behaviour” (19–20).
However, it’s worth bearing in mind Keen’s own contention that, as far as medical neurology was concerned, Hardy favored “anecdotal studies and theoretical speculations over analysis of experiments” (42). Keen sometimes overstates Hardy’s understanding of the truly vanguard experimental science of his day. Keen, while persuasive in setting forth Hardy’s “discipline-specific knowledge about human brains and behaviour, nerves and their diseases, cognition and emotion” overlooks how his fiction puckishly subverts the image of the intellectually voracious, self-educated man of letters (20). Of especial relevance here is the conceited figure of Edred Fitzpiers from The Woodlanders (1886–87). Fitzpiers is an anatomist of high social rank and low cunning who strives to remake himself as a recklessly flamboyant bohemian. It is a mordant irony that Fitzpiers’s psychological and philosophical reading closely mirrors Hardy’s own. Like Hardy, Fitzpiers pursues leads not only from serialized medical journals, but also from a dizzying range of middlebrow magazines...