Sparks, Tabitha, The Doctor in the Victorian Novel

Tabitha Sparks, The Doctor in the Victorian Novel: Family Practices, Nineteenth Century Series (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 177pp. £99.95 hb. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6802-2

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When Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, practitioners of medicine were enjoying new prestige and dominance; as population figures soared, so too did the demand for skilled therapeutic care. According to this new book from Tabitha Sparks, society invested greater meaning and significance onto the medical professional and as ‘scientific developments accordingly bestowed upon the historical doctor a greater authority over life and death, the doctor’s presence in the novel became more central and more vexed’ (p. 15). The Doctor in the Victorian Novel, as its title unambiguously suggests, is an analysis of the role of the medical expert in nineteenth-century literature. Excepting the introductory chapter, which takes a broad sweep of fiction from ‘the Romantic and Early Victorian eras’ to ‘the later century’, the book covers the period of Victoria’s reign and reads the development of the doctor, as a literary trope, through a dozen texts or so. The project’s primary sources differ enormously, therefore, in aim, style, and impact: George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, Arthur Machen, Bram Stoker and lesser-known writers like George MacDonald and Annie S. Swan are all represented here. Far from being a weakness, this varying range of sources strengthens the author’s claim that the doctor’s authority and prestige made him ubiquitous. By focussing on the practitioner’s complex and fascinating progress though a good selection of texts, this book builds a convincing thesis for looking at medicine’s function as an insight into more established themes such as marriage and romance.

Sparks notices what she calls a conflict between the presence of the doctor and the trajectory of the traditional marriage plot. She argues at various points that the representation of the medical man allowed novelists to explore the meaning and significance of love in an increasingly secular and pragmatic age: ‘The experience of the rational doctor in love and/or marriage’, it is suggested, ‘posits a struggle between the growing authority of professional medicine and the sentimental and intuitive feelings that inflect the convention of romance. The Victorian doctor-in-love thus uniquely exemplifies novelists’ efforts to coalesce literary conventions of marriage with newer, scientific objectives’ (p. 25). By the conclusion of this well-crafted and polished monograph, Sparks shows how the marriage plot allowed Victorian authors to explore the significance and impact of clinical thinking as well: ‘in writing about modern doctors and their increasingly scientific perspectives, Victorian novelists drew attention to the clinicism and detachment that came to be identified with modern medicine’ (p. 162). We end on the powerful and stimulating suggestion that ‘perhaps to the Victorian novel and its marital design […] we owe some of the modern era’s association between medical practice and emotional reserve’ (p. 162).

Generally, The Doctor in the Victorian Novel is a worthwhile and valuable piece of work. Although much of the material it looks at has already been subjected to extensive critical analysis, most of its readings are fresh and insightful. I was particularly impressed by the acute readings of Wilkie Collins’s Heart and Science (1884) and Armadale (1864), plus the examination of later Gothic fictions in chapter five. I was less impressed, however with the readings of Middlemarch (1872), Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Doctor’s Wife (1864) and Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (1866). Sparks does little more than summarise the plot of these and/or repeat messages that are writ indelibly in the novels themselves. Take, for instance, the following comments on Eliot’s novel; anyone with the slightest understanding of the text will find little to be enlightened by here:

Eliot, as Staten deftly interprets, undermines Positivist science’s ability to shape society by limiting its influence even over Middlemarch’s most talented and promising practitioner. [… The] novel eventually discards scientific rationales in favour of the more deterministic impulses of personal affection. (pp. 42-43)

The conclusion, ‘Eliot alternatively argues for the power of domestic passions over more erudite and materialist objectives’ (p. 45), is hardly a new one, for all that it fits well with the larger objectives of The Doctor in the Victorian Novel.

The chapter on Middlemarch reveals an even bigger problem with this book: namely its lack of engagement with – and dismissal of – interdisciplinary methodology. It is written, with reference to Middlemarch, that ‘the theories of Victorian science and medicine do not reveal these narrative dynamics so well as attention to the domestic loves and losses of the fictional characteristics, and most especially the doctors who map the trajectory of love in an increasingly scientific age’ (p. 45). The problem here is that Sparks makes no engagement with the ‘theories of Victorian science and medicine’ she refers to, nor does she mention what those theories might be. Instead, she attempts to build a case for understanding the doctor as a representative of clinical, naturalistic and dispassionate discourses by assuring her readers that she follows in the footsteps of scholars like George Levine and Lawrence Rothfield – commentators who, I think, have made more convincing links between men of science and men of letters. But, Sparks anticipates, ‘one does not have to read Victorian science or medical texts to find empirical evidence in the novel, for the novel supplies this current of thought with a stunning consistency of its own’ (p. 11). This may be so in some cases, but certainly not in all. Plus, if one is to see the novel as a response to actual developments in science and medicine (which this monograph does), then interdisciplinary methodology is going to be more serviceable than rhapsodic generalisations about the powers of fiction. More controversially, it is claimed in the introduction that

proof of a novelist’s scientific or medical acumen can suggest, if indirectly, that literature is substantiated through its relation to “hard” subjects like science. While this urge to firm up literature’s foundations (and our own scholarly contribution) is a quite reasonable response to a market culture that, at the very least, devalues the study of humanities, we do not confirm the value of our field by externalising its insights in more commercially influential spheres. (p. 11)

It is a shame that Sparks chooses to attack approaches that combine literature and science – research from which she has clearly learned a great deal – in order to justify her own lack of engagement with the history of medicine. Like many critics who combine considerations of literature and science in their work, I, for one, would resign my pen today if I thought that my main motivation, and my only reward, was a firmer position in a culture that devalued the study of humanities. Sparks’s book would have been better for engaging with interdisciplinarity thinking rather than for dismissing it on such a flimsy basis.

Notwithstanding, because of its insightful and sophisticated readings of some novels, this is a welcome contribution to the field of Victorian studies.

Andrew Mangham, University of Reading