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Reviewed by:
  • Victorian Pain by Rachel Ablow
  • Fraser Riddell
Victorian Pain
by Rachel Ablow; pp. 208.
Princeton UP, 2017. $39.95 cloth.

Rachel ablow’s Victorian Pain explores the destructive creativity that makes a paradox of bodily pain in nineteenth-century culture, tracing modes of sociality—between human bodies, the natural world, material objects—that are rendered animate through suffering. In readings of texts by John Stuart Mill, Harriet Martineau, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Darwin, and Thomas Hardy, the book explores ways in which pain functions to form and reform subjectivities and social identities, drawing some sufferers into shared empathetic communities while orienting others toward isolation and withdrawal. Ablow’s argument emerges from the tensions between two opposing approaches to pain: Elaine Scarry’s influential claim that physical pain “shatters language” in its incommunicability, and Veena Das’s argument that pain “makes a claim on the other” and thus is an inherently social phenomenon.

Ablow’s discussion of pain in Mill’s Autobiography (1873) and Martineau’s Life in the Sick-Room (1845) will be of particular interest to scholars engaged with embodied experience and personal identity in Victorian liberalism. One result of Mill’s notorious breakdown, Ablow shows, was a reconceptualization of the nature of painful feelings; rather than concluding that suffering renders the subject uniquely isolated, Mill comes to understand his pain as simultaneously deeply personal and profoundly social. The affirmation of emotional experience that Mill uncovers is the “feel [of ] feelings generated by a social relation—and then, too, the feelings generated by those feelings” (40). Martineau’s attitude toward pain is strikingly different. Here, the isolation afforded by ill health is cherished as a precondition of disinterested personal autonomy. The experience of chronic pain removes Martineau from the responsibilities of direct social connection. It thus provides a space in which to posit an abstract “impersonal relationality” (70) quite different from that espoused by Mill. Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853) is similarly preoccupied with the role of pain in reconfiguring the boundaries of individual autonomy. In Ablow’s adept close reading of the place of hypochondria in the text, Lucy Snowe’s often debilitating suffering emerges as an indirect means of clinging to her mental independence. Lucy’s narrative short-circuits conventional modes of sympathetic connection because to be enfolded in the reader’s pity is to become subject to those homogenizing and normalizing imperatives that Brontë strives to refute.

One of the most impressive aspects of Ablow’s study is the sophistication of its theoretical framework, which allows for the texts under discussion to speak to concerns far beyond their historical moment. This approach reaps its richest dividends in the analysis of Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Ablow draws intriguing parallels with work by [End Page 149] Gilles Deleuze, Brian Massumi, and Bruno Latour, noting that in Darwin’s texts “it is nearly impossible to determine where culture ends and biology begins” (97). Darwin’s concept of pain becomes something akin to “affect” in Ablow’s analysis: an apparently autonomous agent, circulating aimlessly through objects, and hovering indeterminately between body and mind. As in Mill and Martineau, pain reconfigures the relation of subject and object; at its most extreme, this is manifested in Darwin’s uncanny “compound animals,” who experience suffering co-extensively with the natural world that envelops them. The affective mobility of pain is likewise everywhere evident in Thomas Hardy’s brutal fictional universe, floating beyond bodies to attach to material objects—from trees “rubbing each other into wounds” in The Woodlanders (1887) to abandoned boots that are “almost pitied” in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). Routing suffering through such objects, Ablow suggests, becomes a strategy to impersonalize the experience of pain. The effect is to posit pain “less as something suffered by other[s] . . . who deserve our pity” and more “as a condition of possibility for experiencing ourselves as part of a universe that suffers” (134).

The astute and perceptive readings in Victorian Pain are a timely reminder that bodily and affective experience in the nineteenth century was more phenomenologically complex than might otherwise be admitted by today’s dominant medical discourses. In its combination of...


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pp. 149-150
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