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.[Record]

  • Thomas G. Cole

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  • 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 …