Corps de l’article
Sondra M. Archimedes’s Gendered Pathologies: the Female Body and Biomedical Discourse in the Nineteenth-Century Novel is a deft summary of a familiar site in Victorian studies: the deviant female body. After a thorough introduction of the biological and sexological discourses that constructed the female body in the second half of the century, Archimedes offers close readings of three novels: Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, Rider Haggard’s She, and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. She finds connections between the bodies of transgressive heroines and the particular threats to each novel’s body politic. These close readings are individually convincing but the rationale surrounding them less so. Unless one is new to the field, the idea that the female body was pathologized and increasingly scrutinized over the course of the century, that numerous physical and emotional problems were linked to the female reproductive system, and that reproductive issues conceptualized the vitality or degeneration of England seem readily familiar. Therefore it is difficult to agree with Archimedes that “scant attention has been given to correspondences between the female body and the Victorian social body” (4). Gendered Pathologies itself underserves several works that examine or conflate individual and public bodies, including Laura Otis’s important Membranes: Metaphors of Invasion in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Science and Politics (1999). Otis’s book is not explicitly about the female body, but certainly encompasses it, especially in her reading of Sherlock Holmes as an “imperial immune system” who keeps England safe from “invaders,” including women, foreigners and criminals. Also eclipsed in this field is Pamela Gilbert’s fine study, Disease, Desire and the Body (1997), which explores the feminized and pathologized dimension of popular fiction, a territory figuratively relevant to Archimedes’s cultural lens, and materially relevant to her readings of novels. Elsewhere, when Archimedes writes that “[t]he turn to biology, a preoccupation with disease, and an assumption that the white, middle-class body and its associated social practices comprised a scientific norm all laid the groundwork for a transition from moral discourse to a biomedical one,” (24) she misses the opportunity to cite Helen Small, who makes this argument in Love’s Madness: Medicine, the Novel, and Female Insanity, 1800-1865 (1997) by mapping the transition from a literary and poetic figuration of female insanity to a biological one.
Unlike Small, Archimedes focuses almost entirely on the second half of the century, as her title should have acknowledged: this is not a study of “the Nineteenth-Century Novel” but one that takes on, in her words, “the changing conception of female deviance in the English novel and culture throughout the second half of the nineteenth century” (49). Such specification would have benefited this concise study (202 pages) by claiming a more focused field of research, one that applies Spencer’s model of the social body to novels that feature physically and sexually deviant women, and in acknowledged debt to Foucault, reads these bodies as malleable symbols of power.
After setting up the broad outlines of her field in her first chapter, Archimedes turns to fiction in a chapter on perversion in Dickens’s Hard Times. She reads Louisa Gragrind’s incestuous devotion to her brother Tom, as well as her failure to bear children, as evidence of the improper cultivation that affects both bodies and societies (including families) in the novel. “In both instances,” Archimedes writes, “if the environment is unhealthy, the individual organism may either die or fail to reproduce” (47). The healthy/unhealthy and fertile/infertile binary is complicated effectively when Archimedes turns to Sissy Jupe as a “hybrid character who can act in one sphere [that of the Gragrind family] but invoke the memory of the other” -- the revitalizing world of the circus (88).
In her chapter on Haggard’s She Archimedes applies scientific models of pathology to the text’s construction of gender and race (91), such as the ideas of Cesare Lombroso and ‘Orientalist’ Arthur de Gobineau, which are reflected in She’s physiognomic logic (though even in its original contexts, “logic” seems a stretch). As elsewhere in the book, the formulation of “the female body [as a] nexus for competing ideologies about masculine authority, imperial power, and racial stereotypes” is more established than original.
The fourth chapter on Hardy is the most problematic of the close readings. “Sue’s problems with reproductivity” (48) seems an unfocused way to describe the murder/suicide of Sue’s older children, the stillbirth of her last child, and her own sexual frigidity. While it is clear that Archimedes wants to group these diverse significations of life- fertility, death, and sexual aversion– to fit the organic metaphors of her study, the agency here accorded to Sue as the vector for these various challenges remains ill-conceived.
Archimedes’s generally taut powers of description, especially her summaries of Darwin and Spencer, disappoint when she refines them so far that they become tautological. The following sentences, for instance, do not illuminate so much as confirm themselves: “I trace the idea of pathology as something separate and distinct from the normal. It is this division between normal and pathological that enables the concept of deviance to become an important focus of nineteenth-century science and medicine” (9); “the depiction of society as diseased is enabled by an underlying biological metaphor envisioning the sphere as a living organism or social body” (13); “if society really were an organism, then only reproduction would ensure its continuance” (47). Nevertheless, the first chapter, “Science, Gender, and the Nineteenth Century,” would be useful in a seminar that called for an efficient but thorough introduction to this field. I would, however, want to qualify the definitional utility of “the nineteenth century,” which Archimedes relies upon throughout the book to encompass the period’s expansive and various notions of pathology, biology, and sexuality. To be fair, Archimedes does this very well in her close readings, but too often the broader formulation is used as a placeholder in the book’s introductory and framing conversations. Similarly, a socio-historical imprecision lurks around statements like, “In Britain, the second half of the nineteenth century saw frequent economic fluctuation and increasing class mobility, while middle-class women sought higher education and work outside the home” (2). While a limited number of exceptional middle-class women sought these things, the implication that doing so was part of their social experience needs to be checked. Many of the shortcomings of Gendered Pathologies reflect its previous and recent (2003) incarnation as a dissertation. As a monograph it would have benefited from further attention to recent criticism as well as more studies of contemporaneous novels. For instance, the metaphorical connection in Dracula between Lucy’s sexually-transmitted vampirism and the imperial contagion threatening England is just one late-Victorian example of Archimedes’s subject in fiction, but it is so familiar that its absence from Gendered Pathologies feels like an oversight.
Tabitha Sparks is an Assistant Professor of English at McGill University. She specializes in the nineteenth-century British novel, Victorian cultural studies, and literature and medicine. Her articles have appeared in Cultural Studies, Journal of Narrative Theory, Nineteenth-Century Feminisms, as well as in book collections.