Anne Stiles, Popular Fiction and Brain Science in the Late Nineteenth Century

Anne Stiles, Popular Fiction and Brain Science in the Late Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 274 pp. £55 hb. ISBN 9781107010017.

‘What is perhaps most striking about late-nineteenth-century theories about insanity and genius is their persistence in modern culture’ (154) writes Anne Stiles, in Popular Fiction and Brain Science in the Late Nineteenth Century. Possibly the most pleasurable part of this book is the familiarity of the themes, despite the fact that, according to Stiles, ‘no one has yet inquired why the late-Victorian Gothic novel and the romance might be ideal mediums for exploring specifically neurological quandaries’ (5).  There is something in this exploration to which every reader is bound to relate. In chapter 3, ‘Photographic memory in the works of Grant Allen,’ Stiles writes, ‘[The main character’s] visceral responses to her returning memories occasionally bring to mind later, psychoanalytic discussions of traumatic shock; take, for instance, Breuer’s famous patient, Anna O., who also experienced aphasia and amnesia following her father’s death’ (114).

Brain Science examines Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde and the double brain, Stoker’s Dracula and cerebral automatism, Wells and the ‘mad scientist’, Allen and photographic memory, and Corelli and the neuron. The latter two are particularly interesting - though their novels are less well-known, the themes within them are still deeply familiar. Both Stevenson and Stoker, Stiles writes, ‘received scientific training and later penned famous Gothic romances that hinged upon specific developments in cerebral localization’ (5). But whether or not they had scientific training, Stiles interprets each author’s personal take on the science he or she puts to fictional use: critically, as in Stoker’s case, or constructively, as in the case of Corelli’s purportedly empowering, zeitgeist-hitting novels aimed at a ‘nervous’ Victorian female readership.

It is largely the fault of the ‘Twilight’ phenomenon that vampires have most recently been popularised as sexy and hyper-, rather than super-, natural. Brain Science brings us back to the text of Dracula, wherein, ‘like late-Victorian cerebral localizationists who argued that brain function was entirely determined by material factors … Dracula threatens to transform his victims into human automata lacking souls or free will’ (51). This vampire is mechanistic rather than naturalistic. Stiles places Stoker’s work neatly amidst the ‘psychological turf wars’ (55) of late-Victorian physiological determinist debates. Similarly, she questions previous critical examination of Stevenson: ‘One wonders … why Linehan and Danahay did not turn to earlier writers on dual-brain theory whose works might have influenced the composition of [Jekyll & Hyde]. I will do just that’ (33). She cites a similar lapse in scholarship on Corelli: ‘While recent critics have discussed Corelli’s interest in Victorian thermodynamics, psychology, telegraphy, and Edison’s electrical discoveries, so far no one has probed her engagement with neurology, despite the innumerable references to brains, brain waves, and brain cells in her fiction’ (158). Brain Science sparks these connections so readers need not fear becoming automata themselves.

One criticism of Stiles’s style is her repeated (though charming) apologetic asides, particularly regarding Corelli. Chapter 5, ‘Marie Corelli and the neuron,’ is littered with adjectives such as ‘unorthodox’ and ‘unusua,’ (162), phrases such as ‘bizarre as these phenomena may seem to the modern reader’ (163) and, regarding the Society for Psychical Research, ‘Perhaps surprisingly, these outré subjects attracted the interest of many illustrious researchers’ (167). It seems unnecessary for Stiles to apologise for facts of history. Corelli’s immortal, radioactively-charged heroine is surely no more odd than Stoker’s undead, blood-sucking villain. The latter simply made its way into pop culture more permanently than the former. Or, put more simply, isn’t it a bit anachronistically unfair to say the Victorians were weird? Popular Fiction and Brain Science in the Late Nineteenth Century is, after all, most likely to be read by those familiar with the period.

Chapter 4, ‘H. G. Wells and the evolution of the mad scientist,’ makes an excellent case in light of contemporary science. Wells was thoroughly informed about developments in brain science, particularly the cutting-edge neurological work of Bouillard and Broca; he was critical of much of it. The 1876 Anti-Vivisection Act is given the necessary attention throughout the book, including this chapter: ‘Although Wells supported the responsible use of vivisection, his attitude towards Moreau’s cruel experiments seem ambivalent at best’ (140). Stiles is usually careful to consider Victorian practises, such as vivisection, in their time, but there is the tricky question of how necessary it is to address the modern applications of these arguments when Brain Science devotes most of its pages, as it should, to making an excellent case for these novels in late-Victorian scientific culture. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stiles is most at risk of becoming distracted by present-day application of these ideas when examining Wells, the most futuristic author of the lot.

Towards the end of the chapter, Stiles adds a brief section: ‘Have we evolved?’ – a necessary nod to the persistence of these ideas in culture today, but I wonder whether the section is too brief. It should be an entire book in itself. Despite her acknowledgement of the present in this small section, Stiles comments (only on the previous page) on the scope of Wells’s imagination: ‘Later in life, Wells envisioned even broader possibilities for the mental future of humanity. In 1938, he penned a utopian scheme entitled World Brain in which he proposed that “the scientists, technicians and artists, the specialists in all fields, are to be employed in the compilation of a vast, and continually updated world encyclopaedia which will embody the collective wisdom of the world’s best brains on every conceivable issue”’ (153). It seems Stiles could have moved this quote into the last section, the one looking towards our future, and said that the above idea persists today in the form of the world wide web, particularly as she spends time pointing out Corelli’s foresight: ‘Corelli’s scientific “predictions,” in fact, rivalled that of more renowned science fiction writers like H.G. Wells or Jules Verne’ (157). It is a difficult line to walk: sticking to the late-Victorian period, or considering these ideas, irresistibly, in the twenty-first century.

Despite the temptation for this reviewer to become distracted by the present-day relevance of nineteenth-century knowledge of the brain, Brain Science does an excellent job of locating late-Victorian scientific developments within its selection of Gothic romances. ‘Out of the fire and the air I have absorbed the essence of all beauty and power!’ (156). Maybe not as invigorating as Young Diana’s bath in radioactive fluid, but an uplifting read nonetheless.

Kelley Swain

Kelley Swain is writer-in-residence at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge. Her current project is a poetry play about and eighteenth-century anatomical wax models.