Articles by bsls

You are currently browsing bsls’s articles.

Liliane Campos and Pierre-Louis Patoine (eds.), Life, Re-Scaled: The Biological Imagination in 21st-Century Literature and Performance (Open Book Publishers, 2022) xvi + 402. £31.41 Hb. £22.91 Pb. ISBN: 978-1-80064-750-3

We live in a world whose multiscalar entanglements can no longer be ignored: the climate crisis is more conspicuous than ever, while our agency and indeed what we consider our beings and selves are intricately woven into a web of relationships with microorganisms. Our scale, then, is the meso-scale, the human scale which has not been very much surpassed over the last centuries. What this book puts to the fore is that it is only one of many scales, and not by any means a more important one. Literature and performance have traditionally focused on the human scale, tailoring, for example, the realist novel to a human lifetime and the stage dimensions to a limited number of human bodies. As this volume shows, the early twenty-first century has already seen many ways in which literature and performance engage with those various scales, from Paul Hamann-Rose’s analysis of ‘molecular landscapes’ to the planetary scale of pandemic narratives in Rishi Goyal’s, Kristin M. Ferebee’s and Pieter Vermeulen’s chapters. Poetry (Sophie Laniel-Musitelli), comics (Jason Tougaw, Susan M. Squier) and stage performance (Kirsten E. Shepherd Barr and Hannah Simpson, Eliane Beaufils) share the difficult but immensely fruitful task of representing the infinitely small, the planetary, both and beyond.

Weaving together life, science, scale, representation, and aesthetics, this book fills an important gap. Anna Tsing’s article on nonscalability applied to living beings and Bruno Latour’s advocacy for visual art that does not espouse the optical rules of telescopic lenses have paved the way for such an important volume. The collection Scale in Literature and Culture edited by Michael Tavel Clarke and David Wittenberg in which Latour’s work is published, figures as a significant predecessor, but Campos and Patoine’s focus on life, as well as the number of genres and cultural productions studied pays a broader, and more consistently materialist, tribute to the complexity of processes at stake when zooming in or out in the representation of life.

Section 1, ‘Invisible Scales,’ investigates how imaginative works inspired by developmental biology, mycology, and microbiology connect the minute, unseen scales of life to broader environmental concerns. This section highlights the interplay between the microscopic world and ecological questions, offering new perspectives on how we understand and engage with our environment. Section 2, ‘Neuro-medical Imaging and Diagnosis,’ explores how contemporary narratives incorporate and respond to advancements in neurobiological science. It delves into the ways in which neuro-medical imaging and diagnostic techniques influence storytelling and our understanding of the human mind and its complexities. Section 3, ‘Pandemic Imaginaries’ examines the impact of pandemic scenarios on narratives of daily life, spanning urban, regional, and continental scales. It challenges readers to reconsider demographic ideologies and positivist ontologies that have historically dominated modern, colonial, extractivist, and racist worldviews. Finally, Section 4, ‘Ecological Scales’, addresses the daunting representational challenges posed by climate change and the global ecological crisis. This section discusses innovative strategies for depicting the spatial and temporal scales of animal, plant, and microbial life alongside geophysical phenomena. It underscores the need for new performance and narrative approaches to effectively convey the complexities of planetary ecological issues.

The beautifully problematized introduction does not leave any area uncovered, ranging from the political to the ethical and aesthetic implications of thinking the living and scale together. Crucially, it emphasizes the epistemological approach that binds these elements together. It offers pleasingly diachronic insights such as the fortune of the image of the web, from the spider to the web and back again more recently to biology, ‘when the now familiar world of computers and internet connectivity helps us to imagine strange biology’ (10). The introduction tackles both important tendencies whose stakes are clarified (the importance of zooming in as ‘a partial turning away from a Modern episteme predicated on a distanced view, supposed to guarantee objectivity and universality’, 10) and deeply original interrogations such as the distrust for machine analogies and for the concept of ecosystem as expressed by Vinciane Despret and inflecting Ben De Bruyn’s analysis of Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13.

While much scholarship is published every year on culture’s necessary turn away from anthropocentrism, the de-centering is rarely as radical as in some of the productions analysed in Life, Re-Scaled. From a focus on fungi engendering Jeff VanderMeer’s mycoaesthetics (Derek Woods) to the monologues of forest and sand in Edgarund Allan’s Beaming Sahara (Eliane Beaufils), little of what really matters at planetary scale is left out of this endeavour.

One of the great merits of this collection is its attention not only to the shifts in scale but to their inherent difficulty. A particularly enlightening example is Kristin M. Ferebee’s reference to the impossibility of representing oil as a thing in itself, lost as it is in a network of scales, representations, and potentialities (208-213). Similarly, the multi-scalar perspective of the collection necessarily foregrounds causality in a new and challenging way, since linear causation is no longer possible in such a complex world of interwoven phenomena. Sophie Laniel Musitelli’s minute unwrapping of intersecting causations involving genetics and the environment in the development of living beings as they appear in Gillian Clarke’s poetry makes the matter particularly clear.

The variety of genres spanned in the study does not hinder the emergence of new categorizations which are transversal and will undoubtedly provide a helpful reading grid to future scholars. The molecular sublime and the molecular grotesque as established by Paul Hamann-Rose in poetry, fiction and popular science may apply to theatrical performances or film; Pascale Antolin’s definition of the neuronovel and Ben De Bruyn’s vision of multi-track narratives would be useful tools to read poetry’s attempts to come to terms with neural imagery and our pluriverse. Similarly, the emphasis on recent coinages such as ecostoicism (De Bruyn, quoting Caren Irr) might be extremely effective in describing common behaviours.

Many of the chapters do not focus only on what literature and performance do to emphasize questions of scales but also on what they do not do – or say. In this respect, and as a great example of the political implications of scale selection in story-telling, Pieter Vermeulen’s strong contribution is a case in point. When reviewing pandemic and post-catastrophe fiction and Emily Saint John Mandel’s Station Eleven in particular, Vermeulen draws attention to the almost unspoken and unproblematised mass-death necessary to the ‘cosy catastrophe’ mode in which the few survivors’ story unfolds. Finally, one of the assets of the collection lies in the way some of its chapters view the circulation between scales as a parallel to the circulation between the literary imagination and popular scientific (Paul Hamann-Rose, Derek Woods) or pseudo-scientific (Pieter Vermeulen) discourse: it is far from unidirectional.

Perhaps more of those works centring on how the contemporary literary and artistic imagination’s grasp on life, scales, and their intersection infuses scientific discourse would prove a useful complement to this volume; other uncovered areas include a classification of the shifts in scales in literature and performance, since those shifts may not follow the same rules or have the same ethical and affective implications; and, finally, a postcolonial take on Life, Re-Scaled would be welcome as it may lay further emphasis on the political aspects of those scale-shifts. Such research would benefit from a strong base in the form of this extensive and compelling volume.

Sarah Bouttier, Institut Polytechnique de Paris / Sorbonne Nouvelle

In-Person: Thursday 24th October 2024

Online: Monday 28th October 2024

Keynote: Heather Latimer

Abstracts due: 9th August 2024


This conference, organised by Dr Anna McFarlane, takes place over two days: one day in-person at Lancaster University, and one day online. This is to maximize accessibility and international engagement.


Representations of pregnancy and birth in speculative fictions have hardly been commonplace, but thinking about reproduction in these texts quickly produces an alternative canon. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been read as a story of a man taking control of the powers of reproduction traditionally granted only to women, putting reproduction at the heart of the science fiction and gothic traditions with such influence that we still read its echoes in texts like Louisa Hall’s Reproduction.  There is a history of imagining ectogenesis (gestation outside of the womb) in speculative fictions from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to Helen Sedgwick’s The Growing Season. And recently, there have been a number of texts that use reproduction as a metaphor for thinking about the climate crisis, and the loss of a future that we all might face (Naomi Booth’s Sealed, Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, Paul McAuley’s Austral).


Beyond literature, there is regular representation of reproduction in speculative texts onscreen, especially recently in films like Birth/RebirthImmaculate and The Pod Generation. Such texts have been accompanied by scholarship on reproduction in speculative cultures and the child as a figure representing the future: most notably in Rebekah Sheldon’s The Child to Come: Life After the Human Catastrophe, Emily Ashton’s Anthropocene Childhoods and in Heather Latimer’s work on reproductive dystopias and queer pregnancy. 

Read the rest of this entry »

Suzy Anger and Thomas Vranken, eds, Victorian Automata: Mechanism and Agency in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2024), 360 pp. £100.00 HB, ISBN: 9781009100274

Automata and automatism were not new phenomena in the nineteenth century. So well established were such mechanical reproductions of human and animal life, that encounters occurred with, as Thomas Vranken reflects, ‘unprecedented regularity’ (26). The rise of industrialisation and the resultant mass-production of affordable ‘automatic toys’ resulted in the proliferation of automata during the period. It was ‘the Golden Age of Automata’ (33).

In contrast to their eighteenth-century cousins, those automata of the period between 1848 and 1905 were a ‘pale imitation of what had gone before’ (26) and often overlooked by scholars, who chart the creation of mechanical, artificial life with a ‘skip from Enlightenment and Romantic androids to twentieth century robots’ (27). Automaton creations of the nineteenth century were regularly portrayed derisively by the Victorians as ‘derivative historical afterthoughts’ (27). Yet despite this, they insisted on categorising their mimetic automaton creations with the unique, handcrafted ‘automata of the past’ (27). The Victorian automata therefore contain ‘ghosts’ of earlier automata that they ‘simultaneously canonize, echo, and subvert’ (27). For the Victorians, automata became emblems of ‘mechanicity (…) time and temporal standardization’ (27), but these lingering ‘ghosts’ of the past complicate such periodic boundaries. As such, the ‘unceremonious dethroning (…) as the acme of technological innovation’ (27) of Victorian automata enabled a transition to be made from automata to automatism.

The proliferation of automata in Victorian daily lives led to the language of automatism and the cultural representation of automata ‘taking on varied forms and moving across multiple sites’ (1). As a result, automata enabled the expression of assorted ideas and values, raising questions about ‘efficacy of consciousness and volition, the limits of agency, the boundaries between the organic and mechanical, and what it is to be human in a scientific and industrial age’ (2). Whilst the ‘industrial “automata” in factories outproduced the human body’ (1), others ‘charmed and entertained crowds’ (1). These ‘bespoke performing objects’ (33) were for their middle-class owners, a display of ‘social status, via ownership of a highly crafted (and expensive) device’ (33). Furthermore, for the Victorians, automatism was ‘credited with intellectual and creative achievements impossible for the conscious mind’ (2) and therefore enabled ‘access to higher planes of reality and (expansion of) mental powers’ (2). As Suzy Anger deduces, the ‘discourse of automatism were capacious, ubiquitous, and multivalent (…) They conveyed limitations and dissolved them. They expressed fears. They delivered fantasies’ (2).

The theories of automata and automatism during the nineteenth century became central to the creation of a ‘significant organising structure of knowledge’ (3) within the period. The essays collected in this volume examine this schema within a range of sites, including theatre, media, literature and science, as well as examining the social, racial, technological, scientific, aesthetic and philosophical developments that automata generated. The volume consists of an introspective collection of essays by a multi-disciplinary group of scholars who consider the engagement of science and culture arising out of Victorian thought on automata and automatism. Essays make close analysis of the presence of the automata in Victorian literary texts, including those of Richard Marsh, Anthony Trollope and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The collection is divided into four cohesive sections: “Mechanical Automata”, “Automatism”, “Literary Genre and Popular Culture”, and finally, “Interactions”. Essays under the section of “Mechanical Automata” consider the history and uses of automata, as technology, commodity, and entertainment, as well as race, human labour and the intelligence of machines. The first essay by Kara Reilly explores the automata as a collectable commodity, which was ‘influenced by popular performers of the period’ (33) and reproduced the performances of ‘actual named performers’ (45) as well as more general performers, such as ‘circus clowns and magicians’ (45). These automata enabled the consumer to ‘possess a “living” version’ (12) of the performance, and ‘by extension, their glamour’ (45). Reilly’s essay offers an insight into the construction of celebrity, as well as commodity fetishism and commodity culture during the Victorian period. The historical development of the automata in this section reaches its conclusion with Simone Natale’s consideration of the history of automata and the development of computing and AI. Natale charts how automata are ‘commonly indicated as progenitors’ (80) of the field of today’s AI. However, the essay goes on to innovatively emphasise the ‘role of users and audiences’ (81) in this history.

Part two of the volume, entitled, “Automatism”, successfully explores the abundance of ideas surrounding mental automatism in a plethora of cultural spheres, including legal, psychology, literature, and evolutionary science. As a reflection of this impressive variety of fields included this, the largest section of the volume, consists of five essays. Roger Smith’s opening chapter considers automatism as a way of ‘understanding human conduct’ (90), in the context of criminal legal proceedings. The essay interrogates the debates surrounding human deeds and agency, as well as questions of free will and culpability. Anger then goes on to investigate the mind and body problem and considers Thomas Huxley’s proposed answer to this conundrum, which suggested that ‘humans are conscious automata’ (107). Anger effectively relates this to the broader culture which ‘lurks in the shadows behind a surprising range of thought and writing’ (107) and the representation of human consciousness and literature. This section concludes with George Levine’s exploration of the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin. Levine offers an interesting and thought-provoking alternative to the interpretation of Darwin’s theories, by considering the role of automatism in relation to the natural world.

The volume then moves in part three, “Literary Genre and Popular Literature”, to consider the influence of automata in a selection of Victorian literary texts, in the occult, detective and popular fiction genres. The section opens with an essay by Thomas Vranken and Stephen Knight, which examines the place of the automaton as ‘one of detective fiction’s central recurring symbols’ (197). This novel argument focuses on Poe’s 1836 essay, “Maelzel’s Chess-Player”. In their essay, Vranken and Knight suggest that the automata, being the ‘thematic motif’ of Poe’s essay also shaped ‘the burgeoning genre’ (197). Throughout the chapter, Vranken and Knight interrogate the requirements that the Victorian detective fiction genre required – firstly, the need for a ‘clockwork world, in which clues can be traced back with absolute (…) certainty’ (203). Concomitantly, the genre also assumed the need for more personable protagonists, rather than simply unfeeling, ‘calculating machines’ (203). Whilst this essay offers stimulating arguments, the inclusion of an extended discussion of an American novel in a volume on Victorian (British) culture is questionable. Shuhita Bhattacharjee’s essay considers the automaton in the genre of the occult, with a close analysis of several of Marsh’s texts. Bhattacharjee discusses the depiction by Marsh of the mesmerised human subject. The analysis of the texts offers complications to the issue of criminal responsibility, volition, and power. The mesmerised, ‘automaton-like humans fracture’ the commonly held notion of the ‘connection between mesmerism and painlessness’ (208) with the mesmerised human (outsider)-automatons experiencing internal agony. By revealing such inner turmoil, at the hands of the ‘mesmerist’s cruel power’ (209), Marsh’s texts expose the suffering of the automatatized subject as well as a protest ‘against socioeconomic injustices’ (209).

The concluding part of this volume, entitled ‘Intersections’, develops the studies of the preceding sections, with chapters considering the development of automata becoming synonymous with puppets, and the representations of new media technologies. Chris Dingwall’s essay reveals the scientific racism embedded in the production of Topsy dolls, discussing the character of Topsy, in Beecher-Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As with the essay by Vranken and Knight in the previous section once again an American novel is being closely analysed in a book exploring Victorian automata. The essay charts how Topsy is ‘less an embodiment of natural racial difference than an artificial product of the slave system itself’ (272). Topsy is ‘not a person but a thing’ (272) and as a mechanized human, she came to ‘symbolize the artificial world that had “grow’d” out of capitalism’ (273). Sally Shuttleworth’s essay analyses George Eliot’s fiction, specifically, “Shadows of the Coming Race” (1879). This essay considers the development of the automata possessing cognitive abilities. These machines which were created with the ability to ‘measure, extend, and amplify human senses and capabilities’ (290). Within this close reading, Shuttleworth draws on the questions of boundaries between animal, human and machine becoming ‘unstable’ (290), with Eliot’s own fascination with the development of machines with the aptitude of ‘exploring a world beyond the human senses’ (305) as well as her fears for the future as an author ‘in a world where machines could make their own transcriptions of everyday life’ (306).

Overall, Suzy Anger’s and Thomas Vranken’s Victorian Automata: Mechanism and Agency in the Nineteenth Century, is an impressive volume of essays that explore the many guises of automata in the nineteenth century. The essays demonstrate Victorian thoughts on automata and its various intersections between scientific developments of the nineteenth century and popular culture. With enlightening readings of popular and lesser studied literary texts of the period by the essays’ authors, the volume will be a useful source for scholars interested in both science and literary disciplines. Each essay has been impressively researched, utilising a vast selection of primary and secondary sources. This is an engaging and highly readable collection with much of interest for those in the field.

Jessica Thomas, University of Chester

Abigail Boucher, Science, Medicine, and Aristocratic Lineage in Victorian Popular Fiction (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2023) 237 pp. $119.99 Hb. $16.99 Eb. ISBN: 9783031411403

Abigail Boucher’s Science, Medicine, and Aristocratic Lineage in Victorian Popular Fiction (2023) aims to address what she terms a ‘remarkable’ lack of scholarship on ‘an entire social class’ – that is, the aristocracy. In particular, she draws readers’ attention to depictions of the upper class’s health in Victorian popular fiction. She focuses on how they were pathologized in popular texts as a way to measure, at least in part, how the general population conceived of them during a time of massive social and economic change. Furthermore, she explores ‘how literary representations of that visually prominent lineage could be used as a safe ‘sandboxing’ exercise for different classes to test out or grapple with new scientific and medical concepts’ (3). These concepts include consumerism and ‘illness and class performativity’ (29), which are discussed in chapter 2, gender norms and fertility, which are discussed in chapter 3, inbreeding and race, which are discussed in chapter 4, and physiognomy and evolution, which are discussed in chapters 5 and 6. While each chapter covers distinct topics and genres of popular fiction, Boucher nicely connects every section and progressively builds ideas across chapters. Published as part of the Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science, and Medicine series, the monograph certainly addresses the intersecting interests of those disciplines, but researchers and students will also find her chapters on silver fork novels and sensation fiction useful in any seminar or study on those genres of Victorian literature.

By Boucher’s own admission, the first half of her book covers genres of Victorian fiction that were very popular but relatively short-lived. Silver-fork novels were popular ‘between the 1820s and mid-1840s before collapsing as a genre and fading almost entirely from the public consciousness’ (29). G.W.M. Reynolds’s Chartist penny fiction, the subject of chapter three, speaks to the interests of a working-class movement that was most active for about a decade. Victorian sensation fiction’s heyday lasted ‘from the late 1850s to the early 1870s’ (112). The genres she covers in her final two chapters, however, ‘are considerably smaller’ than the others featured in the book: the Chivalric Feudal of Ruritania and the Evolutionary Feudal – both ‘products of the Victorian Medieval Revival’ (187). While readers will be, by and large, less familiar with the small group of texts Boucher discusses in chapters five and six, the small scope of these genres means Boucher is able to cover them thoroughly in the space of two chapters. Readers should know that chapters five and six demand to be read together as they discuss interconnected though diverting genres.

Chapter four’s discussion of sensation fiction and endogamy is the most engrossing of the monograph. Boucher skillfully connects texts across science, literature, religion, history, and politics to track how Victorian sensation fiction ‘engaged with genuine medical and scientific discourses around heredity and well as ideological concerns about class, race, and disability’ (112). This chapter stands out, in part, because it covers more familiar territory (readers will likely be more well-versed in the fiction of Wilkie Collins than they are in some of the more obscure titles covered in chapters two and three, for example), but it also effectively captures the stakes of these issues. We still grapple with the repercussions of Victorian conceptions of heredity, ancestral privilege, and biological traits. Boucher discusses The Woman in White, Basil, The Moonstone, East Lynne, Lady Adelaide’s Oath, The Surgeon’s Daughters, and Lady Audley’s Secret alongside nineteenth-century works of biology and eugenics, and she makes plain something that other studies have largely ignored the import of: that East Lynne, The Woman in White, and Lady Audley’s Secret ‘unravel a mystery around medical inheritance, making pathological lineage an immediate and almost necessary feature of sensation fiction from its inception’ (132). Boucher’s use of the debate between hard and soft hereditarianism is particularly revealing when applied to her close readings of fictional texts, and her claim that sensation fiction reflects anxieties about ‘a disabled and criminal invasion, which itself is often thinly veiled discourse on racial invasion’ comes through clearly throughout the chapter.

Boucher’s conclusion helpfully situates her work in contemporary discourse about class, heredity, media, and race. While she admits that ‘the aristocracy does not occupy quite as much cultural or political hegemony’ today ‘as they did in the nineteenth century’ (227), Boucher notes that we continue to obsessively pathologize the elite in television series, books, social media, and traditional print media. We comment ‘on their health, (dis)ability, physical features, addictions, inherited traits, and their intersections with classed and raced bodies.’ She continues, ‘Perhaps most pertinent of all... has been the relentless coverage of the British royal family, discussion of which almost always turn to health, lineage, and (pseudo-)science. Their connections to various class groups, to endogamic or exogamic marriage, their weight and attractiveness, their pregnancies and parenting styles, their national and racial backgrounds, their assumed or diagnosed psychological states, their medical problems and lifespans’ (228). Boucher’s book was published prior to the Princess of Wales’s March 2024 announcement of a cancer diagnosis, but the text perfectly narrates why and how public speculation about Catherine’s body would reach such a fever pitch, nonetheless.

While this title is a monograph and not an edited collection, it has features of the latter that make it particularly useful. It has a very detailed table of contents that make it easy to find Boucher’s discussions of individual topics and texts, and each chapter has its own conclusion and works cited. This makes Science, Medicine and Aristocratic Lineage in Victorian Popular Fiction easy to navigate and use in smaller pieces. This format also makes it ideal for classroom usage as a chapter can easily be excerpted from the whole.

Ellen Stockstill, Penn State

Laura R. Kremmel, Romantic Medicine and the Gothic Imagination: Morbid Anatomies (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2022) 272 pp. £70.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781786838483

Romantic Medicine and the Gothic Imagination: Morbid Anatomies is a text acutely attuned to the elusiveness of the body. Throughout its five (very informative) chapters, Laura R. Kremmel takes a palpable delight in relating the inexplicability of the body and its various ailments, injuries and idiosyncrasies as they are interweaved with Romantic era medicine and Gothic fiction. In this fashion, Kremmel’s approach mirrors the ‘endearing enthusiasm’ (4) of Matthew Baillie, the author of The Morbid Anatomy of Some of the Most Important Parts of the Human Body (1793) and a key figure in Kremmel’s interpretation and analysis. Between Baillie and Kremmel, the reader is regularly reminded that the body remains remarkable even after being endlessly remarked-upon. Kremmel’s approach situates Romantic Medicine and the Gothic Imagination firmly within the scope of Martyn Evans’ position within the Critical Medical Humanities – that of ‘a reinstatement of wonder’ which acts as a ‘clarion call to us to remain mindful of our materiality, our object-ness, our thing-hood’ (8). This overarching focus and attitude renders Kremmel’s research and scholarship fascinating and well-conceived, an intriguing and powerful emergent area of interest.

Kremmel’s principal argument is that during the Romantic era, the Gothic tradition in many cases aids its characters in ‘harnessing the power of fear’ in order to exercise their agency. The Romantic period is key to Kremmel’s argument; the fluctuating medical theories, knowledge and authority of the era allows this fragile agency to flourish, unfettered by the stricter medical regimes and research of the Victorian period. Romantic Medicine’s chapters are organised according to these often fantastic-sounding medical debates, analysing how they were incorporated into Gothic tropes and narratives during this era.

The first and second chapters of Romantic Medicine are linked and inform each other, with the first focusing on the medical theory of vitalism and the second on whole-body pain. In the first chapter, ‘Reanimated Corpses, Blood, and the Gothic Vital Element’, Kremmel analyses the Romantic idea of vitalism and its presence in Gothic stories of reanimated corpses, concluding with her idea of a ‘Gothic element’ which animates dead characters and gives them agency in the same way the vital element is imagined to in contemporaneous medical debates. In the second chapter (possibly my favourite), ‘Aesthetic Skeletons and the Pain of Melancholy’, Kremmel turns her attention to the dry, tremulous skeletons of wronged, depressed, and hurting women in Gothic fiction. Here Kremmel argues that in the Romantic era, Gothic played with concepts of anaesthesia as producing the most desirable prospect of a body without pain, including emotional pain. Kremmel focuses on the female protagonists of Charlotte Dacre’s poetry, acknowledging that while they are usually characterised as victims, ‘what they do with that victimhood matters. Dacre's victims either fight back, make their stories known, or find solutions of their own, and men are no heroes in any of these resolutions’ (98). This position is refreshing in its acknowledgment that victimhood, tragedy, and even mutilation can offer intriguing new possibilities and identities in the Gothic, often particularly for women; these events do not preclude other routes and possibilities for those characters. Also, it was enjoyable once again to note that in these chapters in particular, Kremmel revels in the paradoxical nature of many Gothic cornerstones, including an enjoyable dissection (forgive me) of the bleeding nun character in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), a perfect example of this contrary nature as she bleeds forever but remains a corpse.

The third chapter, ‘Counterfeit Corpses and Evaded Dissection’, takes the dissecting room for its centre stage, analysing the Gothic trope of the ‘false’ corpse (through accident, misunderstanding or foul play) and how this reflects upon Romantic era fears of dissection and medical imperialism. This chapter gives an extensive analysis of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), fin de siècle Gothic chapbooks, and Joanna Baillie’s The Family Legend (1810) to demonstrate the dangerous gap between empiricism and imagination.

The fourth chapter is entitled ‘The Devil and Disability Narrative’ and focuses on the troublesome link between the disabled body and the trope of the devil in the Gothic tradition.  Kremmel continues her earlier discussion of victimhood in the Gothic into this chapter, arguing that choosing to deal with the devil awards a disabled character a form of agency to experience multiple embodiments. However, the desire for the perfect body is ultimately exposed as useless and artificial, resulting in a powerful disability narrative. Kremmel excels in this chapter; she acknowledges the complicated relationship between the Gothic and disability narratives to the chapter’s end, concluding that ‘[b]y creating a platform for pathologised bodies, the Gothic imagination contentiously villainises physical difference at the same time that it turns victimisation for that difference into power’ (162). Kremmel’s sustained focus on only one text also bears fruit in the form of an excellent introduction to and analysis of The Three Brothers by Joshua Pickersgill Jr (1803), which she describes as labyrinthine in its length and numerous subplots. Kremmel situates this complex nature and form as part of her argument, using its many twists and turns to demonstrate ‘the fragility of attempts to judge bodies on their stability or supposed wholeness’ (146).

The final chapter, ‘Contagious Narratives and Gothic Vaccination’, offers a little less in the form of pioneering analysis and Gothic thrills but nonetheless conducts an in-depth and thoughtful analysis of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826). Kremmel argues that The Last Man acts as a kind of metanarrative about the creation of Gothic narratives, conducted and spread through contagion, although ultimately acting in a forewarning capacity as a kind of vaccination. Her lengthy insistence that The Last Man is not a Gothic novel itself struck me as splitting hairs, but I concede its relevance to her argument, which refers back to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s view of Gothic as a genuine medical threat to Romantic readers (mentioned in the book’s introduction).

Overall, Kremmel’s approach is systematic and well-read, her choice of texts is wide-ranging in terms of format and notoriety, and she picks up threads of complex medical history and explains them as needed with thoroughness and insight into their impact on cultural products. Her approach is empathetic and considerable without veering into overfamiliarity, and her scholarship clearly leaves the way open for further dynamic discussion and analysis in the area of Romantic Medicine and Gothic Studies. Kremmel reads back to an era in history when the Gothic imagination could credibly interweave with medical theories about the body, creating a remarkable portrait of a field at a fascinating crossroads between science, fantasy, and horror.

Rebecca Gibson, University of Cumbria

Diana Pérez Edelman, Embryology and the Rise of The Gothic Novel (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021) pp.179, £109.99 Hb. £99.99 Pb. £79.50 ebook. ISBN: 978-3-030-73647-7

Diana Pérez Edelman’s study correlates the proto-scientific field of embryology with the genesis of the Gothic novel. Through a biological context, Edelman uncovers the scientific relationship between Gothic narratives and eighteenth-century theories of embryology. The study aims to broaden understandings of the historical and cultural roots of the Gothic alongside scientific theories of generation. It aims to destabilise dichotomies that have dominated the critical history of Gothic studies, such as male/female, natural/supernatural, horror/terror, and conservative/progressive. For this purpose, Edelman traces the links between early Gothic works and their embryological contexts. ‘Through the sciences of generation’, Edelman argues, ‘the Gothic emerges, ironically, as scientifically progressive and an aesthetic success in its proliferation of genres’ (3). Therefore, Edelman takes a revisionist approach to Gothic studies, challenging dominant readings of the Gothic which perceive it as a nostalgic turn to the sacred and superstitious. Edelman agrees with Diane Hoeveler’s premise of the Gothic constituting an ambivalent shift to a progressive and secular modernity (3). The author’s investigation of the origins of the Gothic was prompted by Steven Bruhm’s claim that the search for the mysterious genesis of the Gothic results in ‘“ghostly manifestations’’’ (3). Edelman materialises these manifestations through the Gothic’s biological and aesthetic origins by drawing on the history of medicine, focusing on the relationship between embryology and the formation of the Gothic genre.

Embryology and the Rise of The Gothic Novel shifts away from focus on the maternal body and birth, instead focusing on conception: the central concern of embryology. It also intertwines feminist and medical perspectives to show how embryology played a role in the development of the Gothic genre, while exploring the ways in which the Gothic adopts and contests scientific progress. The Gothic, Edelman asserts, is the ‘mode most suited to explore these questions’ (5). Accordingly, the book aligns itself with discussions of the ‘“materialist register”’ in the Romantic period, such as James Robert Allard’s Romanticism, Medicine, and the Poet’s Body (2007) and Gavin Budge’s Romanticism, Medicine and the Natural Supernatural (2012), studies which focus on bodily materiality. Edelman’s monograph distinguishes itself by extending this materialist register to the reproductive sciences, combining both a study of aesthetics and biology.

Embryology and the Rise of The Gothic Novel is divided into seven chapters. Chapter One, ‘Conceiving the Gothic’, introduces the study through a close reading of an unpublished poem by Horace Walpole, who describes his juvenile poem through contemporaneous theories of embryology; panspermism (an early form of preformatism), preformation (the belief that microscopic human beings reside in the female egg or male sperm before conception), and epigenesis (the theory that the foetus gradually develops to achieve full form). Preformation and epigenesis are competing theories, yet both express an underlying conflict between male and female, often downplaying the female role. The history of criticism for Gothic Studies, Edelman contends, addresses science and medicine but omits the reproductive sciences. The introduction further establishes a link between embryological discourse and the development of the Gothic through the ‘autogony of self’ (17), monstrosity, and hybridity. The introduction, while informative, includes extensive discussions of preformatism and epigenesis, in some instances at the expense of the argument.

Chapter Two argues for Walpole’s progressive engagement with embryological discourses to challenge the notion that the Gothic is merely nostalgic and unconcerned with scientific progress and modernity. The representative text of this chapter is Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), often read as an idealisation of a Gothic past. Edelman refutes this argument by contending that the novel’s engagement with the supernatural was to get at the truth of biological origins, as supported by Walpole’s borrowings of concepts and terms from embryological scientific models. Chapter Three centres on the novels of Ann Radcliffe. Edelman challenges the critical history of Radcliffean scholarship which characterises her oeuvre as conservative Gothic, due to its assertion of paternalistic societal values. Instead, Edelman explicates the role of Unitarian religious influences in shaping Radcliffe’s writing, arguing that Radcliffe’s work is representative of epigenetic literature in its centring of biological identity as a plot point and its proliferating narratives.

The first two main chapters are concerned with development of the Gothic genre by tracing their embryological origins through the influence of preformist and epigenetic discourse from contemporaneous scientific and religious perspectives. In the three remaining chapters, the author shifts the focus to more epigenetic literary works that were published during the mid and late stage of the Gothic period, which is more demonstrative of epigenetic literature. Chapter Four turns to the first edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1816), highlighting Shelley’s concerns with origins and monstrosity. Edelman uncovers the embryological contexts of Frankenstein to argue for the aesthetic success of the Gothic genre and how the novel was conceptualised. Much of this chapter reiterates previous studies of Frankenstein in which the embryological context has been discussed extensively. However, this chapter provides a detailed explication of these contexts. Chapter Five directs the focus to Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), published two years after Frankenstein, as an illustration of the conflict between preformation and epigenesis and the clash of superstition/science, and mechanic/organic. The discussion of Melmoth establishes an explicit connection with embryological discourses whereas with Frankenstein, as Edelman argues, the links are implicit. The frame narrative of Melmoth intertwines aesthetically with the theme of human generation, supported by the novel’s own self-reflexivity. This chapter supports the premise of the study quite strongly as direct connections are made between the text’s aesthetics and relevant theories and is exemplary in its unique reading of an understudied Gothic text. Chapter Six moves on to James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), and, in contradistinction to the previous three works, argues for an anti-preformationist narrative through the Calvinist context of the plot, which emphasises the theology of double-predestination. The novel is posited as an allegory of biological preformation, supporting a progressive and positive view of epigenesis through the main character’s loss of identity.

Edelman’s study concludes with a discussion of ‘Gothic Offspring’ (169), arguing that the multiple forms of the Gothic are easily traceable due to its emphasis on essential questions concerning origins, which morph alongside the development of reproductive sciences. This claim is not entirely convincing as it homogenises the forms of the Gothic to ‘fundamental biological and aesthetic concerns’ (169). The Gothic is presented as an embryonic source with descendants, which plays into the theme of reproduction, but does not fully consider the variations and proliferations of the Gothic or problematise the notion of the Gothic itself. Perhaps further studies can consider texts – to play upon the genesis metaphor – that are ‘regenerated’ by foundational Gothic works. Nonetheless, the author’s delineation provides a coherent timeline of Gothic works characterised as epigenetic.

Overall, Embryology and the Rise of The Gothic Novel is an interesting and well-researched monograph, offering original insights into the development of the Gothic alongside eighteenth-century embryological discourses. It provides a critical and informative literary-scientific perspective into well-known as well as understudied texts of Gothic literature. I recommend it as a reference for eighteenth-century Gothic fiction, specifically for researchers interested in epigenetic literature and embryological discourses.

Arwa F. Al-Mubaddel, Cardiff University

Andrew S. Reynolds, Understanding Metaphors in the Life Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022), 223 pp. $14.95 Pb. ISBN 9781108938778

I think most of us know that popular science arrives to us refracted through many media. As we follow the ray to the source, we may find that it arrives to us a little slant, with some dilution by long-evaporated contexts.[1] Metaphors are one way to ease the way from the simple surface to dense and complex depths. In his latest book, Understanding Metaphors in the Life Sciences, philosopher of science Andrew S. Reynolds shows us how metaphors can also muddy conceptual complexities. His strategy for serving, in his words, ‘a booster shot to the readers’ “critical thinking system”’ (17), highlights the numerous ways in which metaphors mediate science communication, hypothesis formulation, and change scientific understanding.

The book expands upon Reynolds’s previous work, Third Lens: Metaphor and the Creation of Modern Cell Biology, where the titular ‘third lens’ is the metaphor, a perception-altering ‘instrument’ beyond the ocular and the optical lenses. It forms part of the Cambridge University Press series, ‘Understanding Life,’ which is intended to bridge gaps on current scientific issues, and covers topics such as ‘Evo-devo’ and coronavirus. Metaphors might seem, at first glance, to be a discordant note in this mix; but, like zealous fungi that colonise different ecological niches, their presence and impact proliferates across key biological concepts and so, they deserve some time under the dissecting microscope.

Although I initially expected an examination on the cross-domain, subconscious operation of the ‘cognitive metaphor’, along the lines of George Lakoff’s pioneering book, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things (1987), I was soon introduced to a much wider project. Reynolds’s exploration covers both the intentional and unintentional operation of terminology chosen by biologists. In chapters one and two, he showcases the purposes fulfilled by the metaphor in scientific language – the rhetoric, the heuristic, the cognitive and the instrumental (32-33). Metaphors can whir away in the background, artefacts of past theories; they can be theory-constitutive and change research directions; and they can teach. Reynolds posits that further, metaphors can function ‘as a kind of technological instrument: that changes not only the way we think about or understand the world, but also leads to real material change in the very nature of the thing to which the metaphor is applied’ (33). He captures the metaphor’s journey from a linguistic construct, to a mental perspective, and finally to a deliberately, yet loosely-held tool for performing scientific investigation; every new theory, we might hazard, requires a new metaphoric tool.

Reynolds also notes that philosophers have looked askance at the metaphor and questioned its position in a truthful ‘language of science’. He quickly introduces counter-narratives however, such as the philosopher Mary Hesse’s exposition of how the fecundity of metaphors generates imaginative leaps in theory, as they are ‘an excellent facilitator of analogical reasoning’ (24-25). This includes subtly implying the ‘nature of causation involved’, through the selection of agentive, machine or information metaphors (46). On this grounding, he progresses from the minute to the macroscopic as he works his way from chapters 3 through 7, deconstructing the metaphorical underpinnings of domains such as genes and genomes, proteins, cells and cell societies, evolution, ecology, and biomedicine, ending with a general overview of misunderstandings of metaphors in the life sciences.

Two stand-out chapters for me were ‘Proteins’ and ‘Ecology’. The former has Reynolds breaking down the history of protein research and attendant metaphors. He suggests that using mechanistic metaphors for proteins based on their functionality – such as the lock and key metaphor for enzyme action on substrates – leads to a perception of rigidity and a state of stasis. This is but a partial perspective of the flexible, dynamic and ‘fuzzy’ nature of protein biochemistry (78-79). He also cautions that the empirically-inadequate language of neat mechanistic design and execution, teleological attribution, and agentive molecules is ripe for being co-opted by intelligent design proponents – to the detriment of public science culture. I would wager that the average reader would be unaware of the complex, stochastic protein environment beyond the ‘chemical cogwheel of the Krebs Cycle’ and the schoolbook dictum of the mitochondria as a powerhouse of the cell.[2] Thus this chapter is a powerful demonstration of how a new metaphorical paradigm fosters novel scientific understanding, but excludes the uninitiated. 

In ‘Ecology’, Reynolds bears down on the fond myth of 'ecological balance', a rallying cry for environmental protection. He quotes biologist John Kricher in The Balance of Nature: Ecology’s Enduring Myth (2009), wherein Kricher notes that the balance of nature ‘has always been a fuzzy, poorly defined idea that nonetheless has had great heuristic appeal throughout the ages because it seems so self-evident’ (146-147). Rather than natural forces actively striving for an equilibrium, Kricher says, ‘the overwhelming trend is of dynamic continual change’. This is the kind of metaphor targeted by Reynolds in the epilogue, when he exhorts readers to ‘resist a reactionary embrace of alternative “holistic” metaphors that might sound more humane and spiritually uplifting than the mechanistic and engineering metaphors currently in vogue in many areas of the life sciences, but that promote an unhelpful obscurantism’ and that ‘public understanding of science is, at least in part, a struggle over metaphors’ (186-187). This reveals the tension between precision, unexciting ‘technomorphic’ metaphors that liken biological phenomena to technology, and more palatable human-centric or anthropomorphic language – a complex negotiation, he concedes, in his concluding remarks on whether scientists should avoid metaphorical language (185).

Chapter eight, titled ‘Biomedicine’, assesses competing metaphors available for genome splicing and editing, and shows the importance of judicious metaphor selection. Reynolds hones in on the obvious metaphor used to describe genomic editing – that is, CRISPR ‘scissors’ or ‘cut-and-paste’ models. He broaches infectious disease researcher Elinor Hortle’s concerns that this metaphor implies certainty of outcome, while, as she vividly illustrates, the complex causality of the process is more like ‘attempting to prevent soccer hooligans from rioting in a city by manipulating a bit of the online code for the FIFA rule book’ (168). This ‘malware’ metaphor is a better fit, as it showcases the multiplicity of outcomes for the process – which includes ‘polygenic disease, incomplete penetrance, missense/nonsense mutations, epigenetic silencing, genetic compensation, off-target and germline effects’ (169). The notion of ‘editing’ genes almost certainly affects scientists’ assessment of the goals and process of their work. Metaphors can thus prove to be ‘prescriptive and performative’ for the science practitioner (180).

The discussion converges on two important objectives of science, mirrored by corresponding choices of metaphor – representing (scientific) reality and facilitating the manipulation of reality. Reynolds illustrates how both are served and done a disservice; in doing so, he achieves the unique feat of writing a book for the lay scientific-minded reader as well as the seasoned scientist. One may gain insight into how the processes of scientific ideation may turn on a word; while the other is given a duty of care to tread carefully in the act of naming things that may go on to fulfil the word’s inner semantic destiny(ies).

Understanding Metaphors in the Life Sciences is a denser book than its slim size may indicate, unpacking many fundamental concepts with impact beyond biology. This might leave some pet metaphors out in the cold, disproved and deracinated. In my opinion, however, a more truthful language of science does not conflict with, and even expands, scope for the literary imagination. Terms evoked by Reynolds such as the ‘intrinsically disordered proteins’, proteins as ‘melted solids’ or ‘dense liquids’, and the nebulae of the ‘molecular storm’ display untapped potential for both scientific and linguistic experimentation. The literature-loving reader is invited to explore a new territory, metaphor in hand.

 Sravya Darbhamulla, Archives at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS)

1 Tell all the truth but tell it slant– Emily Dickinson

2 Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998), p.8.

The next BioCriticism webinar will take place on zoom on the 24th of May at 2 pm CET (Paris time): Paul Hamann-Rose (University of Passau) will give a talk on "Books of Life in the Age of the Genome". His respondent will be Rūta Šlapkauskaitė (Vilnius University). All are welcome.

For information about the webinar, contact Liliane Campos.
BioCriticism webinar, 24th of May 2024, 2 pm CET
“Books of Life in the Age of the Genome”

Speaker: Dr. Paul Hamann-Rose (University of Passau)

Respondent: Dr. Rūta Šlapkauskaitė (Vilnius University)


Meeting ID: 827 4727 7584
Passcode: 329900


Abstract: Over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, the novel increasingly enters into dialogue with genetic discourses of life, examining their foundational assumptions as well as potential consequences for individuals and socio-political communities. The novel does not simply embrace the new genetic propositions but appropriates and critically examines them. Central concerns that have shaped the novel’s traditional representation of life expand to include a newly genetic perspective. In the age of the genome, I argue, the novel emerges as a genetic ‘book of life’. To demonstrate the theoretical, aesthetic and political consequences of this development, I turn to Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. The trilogy’s ambitious imaginative treatment of genetic discourses and technologies exemplifies an important ecological exploration of genetic science today, which underlines the critical potential of the novel to contribute to cultural and socio-political debates about future life on the planet.

Paul Hamann-Rose is Assistant Professor of English Literature and Culture at the University of Passau, Germany. He studied at the University of London Institute in Paris and at the University of Hamburg, where he received his PhD. His two principle areas of research are the legal and cultural construction of authorship across the new media landscapes of British Romanticism, and the interrelations between literature and genetic science. For the last couple of years, he has been a member of the GetPreCiSe research project on genetic privacy at Vanderbilt University. He has published widely on cultural representations of genetic science in contexts from postcolonialism to privacy and bioethics. His book Genetics and the Novel: Reimagining Life Through Fiction has just been published with the Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine series.
Rūta Šlapkauskaitė is an Associate Professor of English literature at Vilnius University, Lithuania. Her research interests include Canadian and Australian literature, neo-Victorianism, and environmental humanities. She has collaborated with colleagues from Sweden and Estonia in a Nordplus project on Canadian Studies and is currently participating in the EU Horizon projectMotherNet, which marshals cross-disciplinary perspectives on the material and discursive practices of motherhood. Among her recent ecocritical publications are articles on Canadian authors Fred Stenson and Ed O’Loughlin, and Caribbean writer David Dabydeen. Rūta is currently researching the conceptual relevance of genre in narrating the climate emergency in contemporary Anglophone literatures.

Thursday June 27, 9:00-18:00 BST --- Online & In-person (University of Edinburgh)

A one-day symposium exploring how the concept of 'sex' was theorised at the turn of the 20th century.

‘Fin de Sexe?’ is a one-day symposium that explores how sex, broadly construed, was theorised at the turn of the twentieth century. In doing so, it will place particular emphasis on how sexual types and practices emerged from, and between, scientific and ‘non-scientific’ disciplines. Panels will explore the diverse feelings and representations these modes of thinking about sex invited from such writers, those being written about, and their inevitable intersections.

The keynote, delivered by Professor Heike Bauer (Birkbeck, University of London), will explore the intersections between animal history and the modern history of sexuality.

About the Speaker:

Heike Bauer is Professor of Modern Literature and Cultural History, and Head of Research, Innovation and Knowledge Exchange of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Birkbeck, University of London. She has published widely on literature and the modern history of sexuality, the intersections between queer and animal histories, and the rise of queer and feminist graphic novels. She is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, member of the AHRC Peer Review College, advisory group member of Birkbeck Interdisciplinary Gender and Sexuality Studies (BiGS), co-convenor of the History of Sexuality Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, and member of the editorial boards of Australian Feminist Studies, History of the Human Sciences, and Gender & History.


This event is free to attend, but please reserve your space via Eventbrite.

This event is co-organized by Claudia Sterbini and Ash Jayamohan at the University of Edinburgh.

The organisers of the Theatre About Science conference ( invite contributions to an edited collection, provisionally titled Theatre About Science: Performing and Communicating. This volume follows on from Theatre About Science: Theory and Practice (available online here->

The volume’s thematic guidelines are coincident with those of the conference, aiming at giving an account of contemporary performing arts and science intersections through a compilation of selected works.

You can find more information about this call here ->

There will be a two-step review process, in advance of an October 2025 publication:

  • review of abstracts [deadline for abstracts - 15th June 2024]
  • review of the manuscripts [deadline for sending the 1st draft, if selected - 2nd November 2024]

The book will be published open access by the University of Coimbra Press.


Submit an abstract for a proposal using this form ->

« Older entries