- Syphilis in Victorian Literature and Culture: Medicine, Knowledge and the Spectacle of Victorian Invisibility by Monika Pietrzak-Franger
Scholarship on the history of venereal diseases in the nineteenth century has flourished for a number of years, and it is fair to say that syphilis is probably one of the most written about diseases in medical history and also one that continues to cause medical and public health concerns. Syphilis in Victorian Literature and Culture: Medicine, Knowledge and the Spectacle of Victorian Invisibility, by Monika Pietrzak-Franger, takes an innovative approach by providing a new perspective on the history of syphilis and its “multimedia landscape” (11). Her methodologically well-grounded book uses a number of theoretical toolboxes, including gender and postcolonial theories, the history of ideas, visualization [End Page 134] theories, semiotics, rhetoric, and narratology. Her research is based on a wide range of existing scholarship and a significant amount of sources, including visual material (medical photographs, paintings, drawings, floor plans of hospitals, and maps of the British Empire), objects (wax models and moulages), novels and other literary texts, medical texts and case notes, and policy documents.
Pietrzak-Franger succeeds in weaving together visual culture studies, literature scholarship, historical insight, and an analysis of medical knowledge production. Most significantly, she emphasizes throughout her book the equal importance of text and image, which she treats as semiotic systems that were complementary to each other in the Victorian conceptualization of syphilis. By addressing different sociocultural fields—politics, literature, and visualization—her book offers a new perspective on the place and significance of syphilis within Victorian culture. This approach enables her to unpack the tensions between, and ambiguities of, the disease’s visibility and invisibility.
Following the introduction, Pietrzak-Franger outlines in chapter 2, “Aetiology and Etymology: Concepts, Bodies, Media,” the historical background of her project and describes the Victorian medical knowledge of syphilis. She also explains in greater detail her visual and media studies methodology. Building on visual studies scholarship, especially by Karen Barad and Luc Pauwels, Pietrzak-Franger shifts her focus onto studying “spaces of visibility, processes and practices of visualization and onto the grounds of inter-activity” (48). This approach provides her with the theoretical framework to investigate the “visual production of syphilis in the Victorian era” (48). She is not so much interested in individual visualizations but in the actual “processes of production and dissemination” of syphilis and its understanding, both inside and outside of medicine (50). As far as I can see, this is a novel approach in the medical humanities and history of medicine that helps to address the complex and multifaceted interdependencies among a “variety of cognitive, social, cultural, technological, economic and political processes” relevant to the making of “Victorian syphilis” (63).
The starting point of chapter 3, “Recognizing Syphilis: Pornographic Knowledge and the Politics of Explanation,” is the frontispiece to A. M. Barthélemy’s 1851 syphilis poem, which stands for both the visibility and simultaneous hiding of the disease and illustrates the different modes of talking about syphilis. This third chapter investigates the classification and generation of medical knowledge about syphilis in the polyclinic and clinical museum as places of medical education, and the training of the clinical eye to recognize the disease. The chapter contrasts the medical uncovering and exploration of syphilis with public ignorance, the downplaying of the dangers of the disease in advice literature with the struggle of feminist and New Woman voices to speak against the silencing of the disease, and it discusses the challenges public anatomy museums faced when exhibiting syphilis. Public knowledge of syphilis remained precarious and highly controlled. Hence, chapter 4, “Facing Pathology: Modern (Re)Production of Difference,” questions the various ways syphilis has been represented and portrayed (for example, in medical photography) in Victorian culture and the political effects such depictions had in relation to discourses about gender, degeneration, racism, and xenophobia. Pietrzak-Franger demonstrates that, in the public imagination and medical literature, syphilis became linked to consumption...