DeWitt, Anne, Moral Authority, Men of Science and the Victorian Novel

Anne DeWitt, Moral Authority, Men of Science and the Victorian Novel (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press 2013) 290 pp. £62.00 Hb., £19.99 Pb., $24.00 PDF. ISBN: 9781107036178

The introduction to Anne DeWitt’s Moral Authority, Men of Science and the Victorian Novel proclaims that it will focus on ‘characters who practice or study science, fictional conversations about science, narrative comments on or references to science’ (6). With this in mind, DeWitt offers an interdisciplinary and ambitious study that delivers a collection of chapters covering such scientific topics as astronomy, medicine, scientific naturalism and vivisection. In turn, each chapter charts the changing status of these fields from the early nineteenth century to the turn of the twentieth. DeWitt proceeds to claim that Moral Authority will ‘attend to the science that appears on the surface of the novel’ (6) and interrogates the received wisdom amongst literary scholars, as represented by the model developed in the 1980s by Gillian Beer and George Levine, that nineteenth-century science and literature shared ‘one culture’ (2). In doing so, DeWitt absorbs arguments from scholarship both in literature and history of science and presents a sustained analysis of the literary dimension of this relationship. By adopting a case study approach that explores the novels of George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell, H. G. Wells and a collection of anti-vivisection novels by such authors as Wilkie Collins and Florence Marryat, DeWitt explores the ways in which Victorian novels handled the evolving status of professional science, and identifies morality as the cornerstone in the nineteenth-century struggle for recognition of cultural authority.

In Chapter One, DeWitt outlines the moral language of both popular and professional science publications and observes that ‘scientists’, such as Thomas Henry Huxley, William Whewell and Charles Lyell, frequently aligned their knowledge with moral excellence. By drawing attention to how the scientific naturalists aimed to ‘establish the man of science as an expert’, DeWitt, like Huxley, deprecates the term ‘scientist’ in favour of using ‘scientific practitioner’ or ‘man of science’ to evoke an air of ‘cultural authority’ (23). Novelists, however, put forward similar claims, suggesting that literary forms represented the consummate education in sympathy, but as DeWitt argues ‘scientific study was widely considered a spiritual and moral practice’ (28) at this time until morality became the distinctive terrain of the novel.

DeWitt turns next to some familiar novels, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-72) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (1864-66). In the case of Middlemarch, DeWitt argues that the ‘category of scientific professional’ (87) hardly existed in the time in which the novel is set, and suggests that ‘it would not be precisely accurate to label the character of Tertius Lydgate a professional scientist’ as he is a doctor, (87) whose scientific ambitions are undermined by social and romantic entanglements, but more importantly, thwarted by inferior moral acumen. In the third chapter DeWitt draws attention to the frequent negative associations attached to the ‘professional’ in the period by focusing on Thomas Hardy’s Two on a Tower (1882). This analysis is supported by DeWitt’s statement that the term represented technical knowledge that was likely to result from paid scientific work. Throughout Moral Authority, DeWitt appears more interested in how novels represent a scientific ethos than in how they portray scientific practices or theories, but this is effective in outlining the ways in which science accrued professional authority over the century. DeWitt’s reading of how the courtship plot consistently tests the plot of scientific discovery against everything the novel celebrates, is particularly relevant in the excellent fourth chapter. Here DeWitt absorbs arguments from both literary and history of science scholarship concerned with the debate over vivisection in the 1880s and 1890s. Within this excellent chapter, DeWitt offers a fresh and intriguing analysis by drawing on ‘over a dozen’ antivivisection novels belonging to a ‘subgenre’ (147) that are usually relegated to the footnotes of contemporary scholarly research. In doing so, DeWitt demonstrates that pro-vivisectionists characterized their opponents as antagonising and uninformed women with a slim understanding of science. In emphasising the gendered argument supporting Moral Authority, DeWitt outlines how the anti-vivisectionists did not oppose ‘separate spheres’ ideology but endorsed it to claim morality as the special province of women. To demonstrate that ‘the role of gender in the vivisection debate was far more complex than has hitherto been recognised’ (129), the chapter concentrates on the character of the vivisector and poses some thought provoking questions that refocus previous scholarly interest in the debate. From the outset, the chapter is clear that it will exclude the sentimental short stories and poems that focused on a cherished pet, who was likely to be threatened with vivisection (147). These ‘literary’ contributions were a regular feature of the antivivisection periodicals but as DeWitt rightly emphasizes, they were not concerned with the integrity of the vivisector, but rather with the nature of the animals alongside the relationship between pets and their owners. Given that this claim shifts the focus from the experimental animal to the experimenter, DeWitt’s comment is an obvious but crucial analysis in discounting the sentimentality that attached itself to the debate. By focusing on the moral character of the vivisector, the anti-vivisection writers, who it is fair to presume were most likely to be lay individuals, were able ‘to circumvent accusation that they lacked [scientific] expertise’ (133) and respond to a cultural debate in a swift and concise manner.

DeWitt supports this hypothesis with an analysis of two diverse ‘book reviews’ that were originally published in the first number of the antivivisection periodical The Zoophilist (1882). The first ‘purports to be a review’ (126) of two books by Italian physiologist Paolo Mantegazza but as DeWitt highlights, The Zoophilist was primarily concerned about what the texts revealed about Mantegazza’s character. The second review is a discussion of Leonard Graham’s novella The Professor’s Wife (1879). The Zoophilist reads Graham’s ‘eponymous professor’ Eric Grant, as initially ‘almost too attractive’ (126), but the reviewer explains that this portrait erodes as the plot progresses and as DeWitt neatly states, by the end of the novel, Grant like Mantegazza, has been transformed from a charismatic and eye-catching man into a ‘hard, cold, remorseless physiologist’ (127). For DeWitt, ‘these novels use the courtship plot to depict the terrible consequences of the moral degradation experienced by the vivisector: heroines whose marriages and lives are threatened by a nefarious vivisector impress the reader with the horrors of vivisection by showing that this scientific practice threatens the sacred sphere of domestic life’ (129).

DeWitt proposes that these novels are not ‘endorsing separate-spheres ideology’, instead they are asserting that ‘a woman’s special moral insights should direct science’ (129). By suggesting that ‘advocates for vivisection argued that women were disqualified from the debate by the emotionality and lack of scientific training’ does indeed imply that women were considered ‘unfit for science in general’ (139) and, in turn, opens up grounds for a good discussion. At this point, DeWitt builds on the archival scholarship of cultural and feminist historians such as Richard French, Mary Ann Elston and Coral Lansbury. Noting that French and Elston underline that the ‘predominance of women in antivivisection’ is aligned with ‘other social reform efforts that had more explicitly feminist agendas’ (128), DeWitt moves on to suggest that although Lansbury’s thesis remains ‘widely influential in literary studies’, it has been instrumental in spawning a considerable number of articles ‘confirming that female characters are vivisection’s victims’ (128). Here DeWitt goes beyond Lansbury’s thesis, which claims the vivisector’s wife is first driven mad and then used for purposes of research by emphasising that Leonard’s text is an isolated case. The variety of vivisection novels analysed by DeWitt supports this analysis and the chapter does provide several alternative examples of vivisection marriages.

The fifth chapter focusing on H G Wells draws upon all the threads of the earlier chapters. Wells was one of the few vivisection authors who had first hand scientific knowledge. He was educated by Huxley at the Normal School in South Kensington, and DeWitt explores Wells’s fascination with science and his formal training alongside the apparent contradiction that he also ‘makes the representation of science and the representation of relationships mutually exclusive’ in his novels (179). By doing so, Dewitt shows how Wells pursued a literary career as a means to address the ills of humanity, since through his artistic ambitions, Wells hoped to improve ‘mankind’ (200).

Space is so limited in a review, that one cannot fully offer justice to a study that consistently offers such stimulating and motivating developments within its selection of texts. DeWitt avoids prolonged arguments about gender in favour of what constituted ‘morality’ in men of science and how women perceived their role in science as morally superior. In places, it would have been helpful to have been offered more precise definitions of the gender categories, especially with regard to the anti-vivisection debate. The absolute strength of Moral Authority is DeWitt’s extensive archival work. Every chapter exhibits an array of fascinating primary evidence that demonstrates her own commitment to investigating the ‘surface’ as to the opposed hidden meaning of Victorian texts. This emphasis is dominant in the discussion in Chapter Four focusing on the vivisection debate. By concentrating on what has often been considered by historians as the literary façade of the debate, namely the ‘sub-genre’ novels, DeWitt draws out the voice of the frequently marginalised lay-writer, who may only have produced one literary effort in their life-time. By placing these voices at the forefront on her analysis, DeWitt is able to provide a fresh way of understanding an important cultural debate. In doing so, the study presents a compelling, persuasive and confident study that offers sharp and intelligent readings of the nineteenth-century novel and its relationship to experimental science. Throughout DeWitt is sympathetic to the difficulty of the arguments but at all times, is insightful and provocative. Moral Authority, Men of Science, and the Victorian Novel proposes an important assembly of questions and provides some robust and intriguing answers of its own.

Ann Loveridge, University of Canterbury