Jenny Bourne Taylor and Sally Shuttleworth (eds), Embodied Selves

Embodied Selves: An Anthology of Psychological Texts, 1830-1890, edited by Jenny Bourne Taylor and Sally Shuttleworth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998;repr. 2003). 456pp. £29 pb. ISBN 978-0198710424.

Jenny Bourne Taylor and Sally Shuttleworth’s invaluable Embodied Selves achieves something quite different from Hunter and Macalpine’s seminal anthology Three Hundred Years of Psychiatry: 1535-1860 (1963). Taylor and Shuttleworth make clear their aim is not to provide a comprehensive history of psychology, but rather to illustrate through a range of carefully selected primary source extracts evolving and often conflicting ideas about social identity emerging from mental science between 1830 and 1890. The editors’ insightful introductions to each of the book’s five sections give a highly useful overview of key issues, and each extract is contextualized with a crisply informative preface.

The first two sections, ‘Reading the Mind,’ and ‘The Unconscious Mind and the Workings of Memory,’ cover respectively physiognomy, phrenology and mesmerism, and then associationism, physiological psychology, dreams, double consciousness and memory. The remaining three sections reflect current interest in issues of gender and of psychological disorder. ‘The Sexual Body’ includes extracts on hysteria and gynaecological concerns, as well as on masculinity and the control of sexuality. ‘Insanity and Nervous Disorders’ illustrates the rise of the psychiatrist along with ideas of monomania, moral insanity and moral responsibility. The final section, ‘Heredity, Degeneration and Modern Life,’ presents material on a range of issues from criminality and idiocy to race, childhood and education.

The editors point out that there exists ‘a tendency to read explorations of the unconscious in Victorian fiction in the light of later theory rather than in the discursive context’ of the time. The primary source material they present us with therefore explodes any lazy assumptions about the nineteenth century – that, for example, Victorians believed in a unified, stable ego, had no understanding of the unconscious, and were uniformly sexually repressed. As to fictional writing itself, although this anthology includes a few extracts, such as one from The Professor to illustrate Charlotte Brontë’s knowledge of phrenology, it does not attempt the literary range of, say, Laura Otis’s Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford 2002). But where the latter’s broad agenda allows for familiar illustrations of Mary Shelley’s interest in animal electricity or Dickens’s take on utilitarianism, as well as more intriguing items, Embodied Selves focuses penetratingly on profound psychological concepts which are of necessity more difficult to show at work in literary writings.

For example, the most challenging, but arguably most rewarding extracts are in the second section on the unconscious mind and the workings of memory. William Hamilton in an 1859 lecture on ‘mental latency’ presents new German ideas of the unconscious mind in startlingly prescient terms: ‘The mind may, and does, contain far more latent furniture than consciousness informs us it possesses. […] I do not hesitate to maintain, that what we are conscious of is constructed out of what we are not conscious of, – that our whole knowledge, in fact, is made up of the unknown and the incognisable.’ A couple of short extracts from G.H. Lewes show him recasting Hamilton’s ideas in physiological terms for the general reader, pointing out that ‘The mill-wheel, at first so obtrusive in its sound, ceases at length to excite any attention. The impressions on our auditory nerves continue; but although we hear them, we cease to think about them. […] Let the wheel suddenly stop, and there is a corresponding sensational change in us […] if it occurs during sleep, we awake’. The editors quietly point out that Lewes was working on The Physiology of Common Life (1859-60) from which this is taken, while George Eliot was writing The Mill on the Floss.

To readers unfamiliar with the writing of child psychologist James Sully, his essay “The Dream as a Revelation” is indeed revelatory. Published in the Fortnightly Review in 1893, it articulates in non-specialist language contemporary scientific ideas of dreaming, and that, far from being ‘so much intellectual footling,’ dreams are ‘an extension of human experience,’ ‘a revelation of what would otherwise have never been known.’ Dreams show that beneath our ‘full reflective consciousness’ lies ‘a rudimentary, fragmentary consciousness,’ but Sully argues that it is wrong to disparage the primitive nature of the latter. ‘Much that is deepest and most vital in us may […] be repressed and atrophied.’ Thus when a dream ‘strips the ego of its artificial wrappings’ it ‘brings up from the dim depths of our sub-conscious life the primal, instinctive instincts, and discloses to us a side of ourselves which connects us to the sentient world’. A dream is ‘like some palimpsest’, disclosing ‘traces of an old and precious communication.’ It comes as no surprise to learn this essay was an important influence on Freud.

On issues that are more likely to be familiar, this anthology adds much-needed subtlety to the debate. For example, where Elaine Showalter and Janet Oppenheim amongst others have changed our understanding of gender politics in the period, the section ‘The Sexual Body’ uncovers voices of dissent within the discourse. William Acton’s familiar pronouncement, for example, that ‘the majority of women’ are not ‘much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind,’ is set in context: Acton, the editors explain, was seeking to reassure timid men contemplating marriage that women were not all sexually insatiable. George Drysdale, on the other hand, in Elements of Social Science, or, Physical, Sexual and Natural Religion (1854) openly condemns sexual abstinence on medical grounds.

The extracts themselves are accessible and fascinating, and the anthology as a whole is a rich resource for students of nineteenth-century culture.

Jane Darcy, King’s College London.