Pietrzak-Franger, Monika, Syphilis in Victorian Literature and Culture: Medicine, Knowledge, and the Spectacle of Invisibility

Monika Pietrzak-Franger, Syphilis in Victorian Literature and Culture: Medicine, Knowledge, and the Spectacle of Invisibility (London: Palgrave 2017) 338 pp. £73.50 PDF EPUB, £92.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-3-319-49534-7

Syphilis in Victorian Literature and Culture is an authoritative survey of the interrelated cultural associations surrounding syphilis in the Victorian period. Part of the impressive Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine, the author fills a significant critical lacuna surrounding this disease. Much previous analysis of syphilis has come from a medical history, or literary studies perspective. Pietrzak-Franger, on the other hand, explores multimedia (re)presentations of the disease and their cultural significance, reevaluating the discourse of syphilis as a construction which negotiates between visibility and invisibility.

The work is quite specialised in focus, assuming a high level of  familiarity with visual culture theory, with the first chapter dedicated to situating the study within recent models and frameworks. There are also many lengthy quotations of primary sources that are left untranslated in French. The effect of this may be disorientating for the non-specialist reader, but readers within this field, as well as the dedicated reader from other disciplines will find much of interest in the subsequent chapters.

The second chapter, ‘Aetiology and Etymology’, explores the Victorian understandings of the origin of Syphilis, as both word and disease, providing an overview of the vast number of differing perspectives and how, in the Victorian period, ‘syphilis as such does not exist’ (32). Nonetheless the Victorian moral hierarchy underlying portrayals of syphilis is described, depending on the manner in which the disease was transmitted. Pietrzak-Franger unpicks the multimedial and intertextual depictions in medical atlases, highlighting the twin impact of technological innovations and cultural revolutions, as syphilis discourse interacted with the paradigmatic shift to germ theory.

The next chapter, ‘Recognising Syphilis: Pornographic Knowledge and the Politics of Explanation’ drills down into the power relations underlying recognition of syphilis . Medical practitioners derived much authority and biopolitical power through identifying syphilis. However such knowledge was also politically dangerous, and doctors had to justify their interest in the subject. Intriguingly, the author  shows how this negotiation of power was also handled by New Woman and ‘Pop-Med’ authors. These works frequently invoked the common cultural misunderstandings around syphilis as justifications for their own discourse, yet often contributed to the misinformation surrounding the disease, perpetuating the very culture of silence that they bemoaned.

The fourth chapter, ‘Facing Pathology: Modern (Re)Productions of Difference’, analyses the Victorian cultural baggage of syphilis, exploring how it dynamically interacted with ideas of gender, degeneration, xenophobia and global consumption. Pietrzak-Franger shows how medical opinion and the wider cultural opinion diverge greatly in terms of the gendering of syphilis, but converge on some of its other associations. She explores how syphilis acquires associations from tuberculosis and hysteria, showing how the ‘abject syphilitic mother’ (169) combined with the prostitute to provoke gothic horror of national degeneration as a critique of modernist consumer-capitalist society.

In ‘Prophylaxis and Treatment: Geopolitics of Differentiation’, the fifth chapter, Pietrzak-Franger analyses the attempts to contain this syphilitic threat of national degeneration. These attempts were embodied in various institutions (colonial camps; troop transporting boats; specialised hospitals for returning soldiers) that were conceptually on the border between the nation and its other. The author examines how these institutions failed to address anxiety over the syphilitic threat to the nation, highlighting the porosity of boundaries and paradoxically reinforcing the threat of national contagion. Pietrzak-Franger explores how these failed attempts at isolation via the maintenance of strict borders was also apparent in hospitals for the public. She shows how the role of competing delineations of society, and the nested layers of visibility and invisibility that they had to provide, necessarily compromised the ideals of isolation and containment.

The final chapter, ‘Eugenic Utopias: National Future and Individual Suffering’ discusses the competing utopian/dystopian discourses surrounding syphilis and the nation for Victorian readers. Two key cultural figures are analysed, the Syphilitic Child and the sufferer of General Paralysis of the Insane (GPI). Taken within a Darwinian context, and when the idea of childhood and child/adult relations were acquiring their current meaning, the figure of the Syphilitic Child raised compelling social and cultural issues for Victorians. This was especially apparent in relation to concerns over the future of the nation, and Pietrzak-Franger shows how hereditary shame, guilt, and blame were crystallized in the figure of the Syphilitic Child, often employed in eugenic writing. Similarly, the sufferer of GPI was taken as an indicator of racial and national degeneration. The author convincingly argues that for both figures the metaphorical utility of the suffering of these figures by far outweighed (in the mind of the authors that invoked them) their literal suffering. Both figures were regularly employed as vehicles for social and medical reform, but the discourses surrounding them are ‘strangely quiet’ (261) when concerned with their own suffering.

Overall this work provides a useful lense for Victorian perspectives on syphilis, offering the potential for parallels to be drawn with more recent times. Through an analysis of the interaction between visibility and invisibility, Pietrzak-Franger shows how syphilis flitted around the peripheries of Victorian consciousness, becoming increasingly associated with Victorian obsessions with degeneration, identity and xenophobia. She is careful to point out the multiplicity of viewpoints, showing how the medical perspective was often completely divergent from overall cultural understanding. syphilis, and its various manifestations is shown to be entwined with depictions of other diseases, as well as the figures of the prostitute, and the degenerate male. Above all, syphilis is shown to be a vehicle of critique which is often invoked as a means of furthering social or cultural reform. Pietrzak-Franger has produced a comprehensive and incisive piece of criticism, made all the more impressive for previous lack of attention to the cultural meanings of syphilis.

Joe Holloway, University of Exeter