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Anne DeWitt. Moral Authority, Men of Science, and the Victorian Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. ISBN: 978-1-107-03617-8. Price: US$95.00/£60.00.

  • Thomas G. Cole, II

…plus d’informations

  • Thomas G. Cole, II
    University of Florida

Anne DeWitt’s study of Victorian literature and the emerging professions of Victorian men of science—a term that includes surgeons, physicians, and anyone who might now be called a scientist—is an ambitious book that delivers on its promise: to demonstrate careful readings of literary portrayals of such men in light of the very public—and often heated—debates surrounding the cultural status of science. Instead of looking for the “hidden scientific significance of a non-scientific element,” DeWitt “attend[s] to the science that appears on the surface of the novel” (6). Her purpose is to integrate the popular discussions of the role of science and its practitioners—such as their place in the university or the relevance of Darwin’s discoveries—to the literature that explored the effects of such scientific work. In so doing, her book interrogates the belief that nineteenth-century science and literature shared “one culture” (2)—that is, that since writers as diverse as Charles Darwin, T.H. Huxley, George Henry Lewes, Herbert Spencer, and H.G. Wells could grace the pages of the same literary and scientific journals, “therefore ideas traveled readily and productively between” (2) these realms.

Throughout her book, DeWitt provides detailed histories of such scientific movements as scientific naturalism, vivisection, and even medicine and astronomy, cataloging the professionalization of these various fields from the early nineteenth century to the turn of the twentieth. Because science became more specialized over this period, those who practiced it needed specialist knowledge, creating a growing tension between those within the scientific culture and those external to it. Victorian novelists were not only interested in “what scientific practitioners were saying about the natural world, but also the claims they were making about science itself—the ways that they were defining the practice of science and promoting its place in society” (6)—and they questioned the validity of claims that science could provide the same “moral cultivation” (6) as the novel. Scientists and novelists were thus engaged in a common but competing project of claiming “moral excellence” (26) as a professionalization strategy that would lend them “cultural authority” (33).

In her first chapter, DeWitt focuses on T.H. Huxley, tracing his efforts to depict science, specifically scientific naturalism, as a “spiritual practice” that would benefit society at large (22). DeWitt demonstrates how Huxley, among others, attempted to validate not only the need for scientific study but the moral status of its practitioners: by studying nature the student becomes “more moral,” and his “devotional practice” leads to “moral excellence” (26). Huxley and John Tyndall both saw the value of science as providing lessons for life. However, as DeWitt points out, a seeming contradiction arises in their pursuits. On the one hand, the discoveries of science would be valuable to everyone, and yet, on the other hand, in order to study science one would need “specialist qualifications,” an exclusionary professionalization that problematizes their visions of inclusionary science (23).

Turning to natural history in the novels of George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell, DeWitt proposes that Eliot and Gaskell value natural history because it was “presented … as a moral discipline” and was “positioned … as accessible to everyone, including women” who were categorically eliminated from Huxley’s vision (55, 49). For Eliot, natural history was a moral activity that influenced her writing. DeWitt argues that, owing to her relationship with George Henry Lewes, Eliot was deeply engaged in discussions of natural history. As with Lewes’s observations of the seeming ordinariness of the natural world, Eliot focused her realist literature on the everyday interactions among ordinary people (66-7). DeWitt sees Gaskell’s writing as transforming the “scientific method from a thematic concern to an aesthetic one as it instructs the reader how to read the novel … with careful attention to the seemingly insignificant advocated by natural history writers” (68). DeWitt ends the chapter with an analysis of Middlemarch (1874), specifically Lydgate, who “serves … not only to focus a critique of scientific professionalization”—a process that had excluded Lewes (owing to his amateur status in Huxley’s eyes) from being taken as a scientific authority—“but to be a foil for the novelist” (83). However, DeWitt is quick to point out that Farebrother represents “a mode of scientific thinking that does provide moral benefits,” due to his work in natural history, which Lydgate derides (86). In the end, DeWitt argues, Eliot chose to make Dorothea the exemplar of “moral excellence” (for it is Dorothea who can incorporate both sciences), indicating a new trend that lasts for the remainder of the century (91). Eliot removes the claim of moral excellence from natural science and “aligns it instead with a female protagonist” (91), a move that occurs in the second half of the nineteenth century with increasing frequency in the novels of Thomas Hardy and H.G. Wells, as well as antivivisectionist fiction. This narrative pattern frames the argument of DeWitt’s last three chapters.

In Far From the Madding Crowd (1874), Hardy is more optimistic than in his later novels, for here, as in Eliot and Gaskell, Hardy’s man of science, Oak, uses scientific naturalism for moral reasons—to take care of others. Yet, in his Two on a Tower (1882), Hardy revisits the question of whether “science could replace religion as a source of moral value” (97). Interestingly, DeWitt notes that though Hardy was “highly knowledgeable about science” and that he should have “exemplif[ied] the one-culture outlook” (98)—that is, the idea that Victorian literature and Victorian science “partook of the same ways of knowing” (4)—it is Hardy’s interest in science that energizes “the increasing pessimism of Hardy’s fiction” (120). Hardy could not agree with Matthew Arnold’s view that science could relate to human emotion, increasingly concluding that science was not merely devoid of emotion but “produce[d] the wrong kind of emotion” (emphasis in original, 114). DeWitt rightly points out how even Huxley had changed his views, likening “Nature” not to an angel, as he would have done in the 1860s, but to a “destructive force against which man is morally bound to strive” (124).

In her chapter on vivisection, DeWitt illustrates how late Victorian novelists employed antivivisectionist critiques suggesting that not only was vivisection cruel to animals but that it corrupted the moral character of the practitioner. The latter charge of vivisection’s corrupting influence was a lasting and fundamental criticism in the antivivisectionists’ war chest (127). Women, in particular, drew upon the ideals of Victorian womanhood to assert their superior sense of morality in the antivivisectionist movement: “this affirmation of the traditional association between women and morality underwrites the antivivisectionists’ assertion that women should participate in the public sphere because their special moral knowledge should govern science” (128). But, as DeWitt explains, proponents of science proclaimed that women, who were not allowed to study in universities, did not have the knowledge necessary to make vital and valid critiques (133). Thus, women’s (and novelists’) focus on the moral fiber of the vivisector allowed them to maintain their criticisms without scientific training and education. Furthermore, DeWitt indicates that the professionalization of science greatly contributed to the gendered dynamic of masculine science and the feminine novel. “This split…is a gendered one,” DeWitt claims: “In this process of delimitation, novels were responding to changes in science’s social position: the gradual professionalization of science was establishing science as an essentially male domain; furthermore, this process allowed science’s critics to challenge claims made by the scientific naturalists about science’s ability to provide moral guidance” (164).

DeWitt’s attention to Wells, his scientific education, and his turn to literary pursuits in the last chapter of Moral Authority, Men of Science, and the Victorian Novel brings together all the book’s previous chapters. Educated in Huxley’s school in South Kensington, Wells was one of a very few popular authors who had received some formal scientific training. DeWitt argues that once Wells turned to writing, he inevitably and with increasing vigor decried the professionalization and specialization of science because such processes made it inaccessible to laypeople, an argument that hearkens back to “mid-Victorian scientific naturalism” (168). DeWitt demonstrates how Wells saw his career in literature as a way to address the ills of society; for art, he believed, ought to improve “mankind” (200). As Wells’s literary career progressed however, Wells came in contact with aestheticism, which, DeWitt asserts, Wells disliked for nearly the same reason he chided specialized science: both possessed the same tendency to specialize in their work and withdraw from society. DeWitt writes that for Wells, “The value for science and art thus lies in their ability to provide widely useful ways of thinking” (200).

Though gender is central to the book’s argument, with its description of the implicit gendering of scientific and aesthetic realms, this reader found himself wishing in several places for more precise definitions of these gender categories. The book avoids sustained arguments about masculinity or femininity in favor of discussions of what characteristics constituted “moral” men of science and how women, authors, and antivivisectionists viewed women’s role in science as morally superior. For example, while DeWitt discusses women’s roles at length in her chapter on antivivisectionist literature, at other points her examination of women can be a bit fleeting. Her analysis of the courtship or marriage plot in texts such as Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (1865), Eliot’s Middlemarch, or Wilkie Collins’ Heart and Science (1883) could have engaged more directly with gender issues, as detailed in recent works such as Tabitha Sparks’s book The Doctor in the Victorian Novel or Kristen Swenson’s Medical Women and Victorian Fiction.

However, DeWitt’s greatest contribution to the study of the Victorian novel and the history of Victorian science is her tireless archival work. In every chapter, she includes fascinating primary evidence (letters, newspaper articles, journals) that demonstrates not only her thesis but her own commitment to investigating the “surface” (4)—as opposed to the hidden—meanings of Victorian texts. Her attention to these details makes her book a successful study of science and literature in the Victorian era.

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