Katharina Boehm, Charles Dickens and the Sciences of Childhood: Popular Medicine, Child Health and Victorian Culture

Katharina Boehm, Charles Dickens and the Sciences of Childhood: Popular Medicine, Child Health and Victorian Culture (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan 2013) x, 236 pp. £45.99 PDF, EPUB, £55 Pb, £58 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-137-36249-0

In her introduction, Katharina Boehm cites Thomas Kuhn and Bruno Latour as pioneers in the study of ‘knowledge-producing practices, undertaken by many different social groups’, and expresses the hope that this book will be ‘more democratic’ than one merely concerned with ‘metropolitan elites’ (11).

Leaving aside the unease produced by that last phrase in the British reader who may be more familiar with its contemporary ‘knowledge-producing’ use by the Daily Mail and other socially conservative bodies, the author can be said to have succeeded in her specific aim, but also more generally in the difficult task of saying something new about Dickens’s work. This is especially true of the first, second, third, and fifth chapters which are concerned with child mesmerism and Oliver Twist, Paul Dombey as a ‘hothouse child’, the Great Ormond Street children’s hospital, and evolutionary saltationism (non-gradualism) respectively. The fourth chapter, on ‘the Study of the Child’s Mind’, perhaps emerges a little less convincingly and distinctively from the shadow of generations of critics who have engaged with child education, welfare and psychology as central to Dickens’s concerns.

Fred Kaplan’s Dickens and Mesmerism (1975) documented the friendship of the author with Dr John Elliotson, who would later resign as Professor of Medicine due to the concern of the University College London authorities with his mesmeric practices. Kaplan explored many substantial passages from Oliver Twist as allusions to mesmerism, but the reader of Boehm’s chapter might conclude that he did so only once, and ‘in passing’, with the mysterious ‘Monks and the Jew’ (40-1) scene in which the sleeping Oliver has a nightmarish vision of his pursuers looking through the cottage window at him. Boehm considerably extends Kaplan on Dickens’s involvement with Elliotson’s child demonstrations, contemporary illustrations of such demonstrations, and her reading of the ‘theatrical modes of representation’ (31) in the text which follow from mesmerism as performance, but the overall sense could have been enhanced by a fuller account of the 1975 work as the starting point.

The chapter on Paul Dombey and the other ‘hothouse children’ who attend Dr Blimber’s academy in Dombey and Son, is the monograph’s richest in terms of detailed new textual readings. Boehm carefully traces the connections between the anthropological and physiological works of Blumenbach, Elliotson and others, professional and popular paediatric texts, and the vogue for glasshouses that Isobel Armstrong explored in Victorian Glassworlds (2008), because some key readings involve colonial botany which is not in itself a ‘science of childhood’. The ‘forcing’ (64-77) metaphor in the novel is shown as central to Dickens’s treatment of the threat of ‘patriarchal and colonial oppression’ (54-5), which he reverses into an optimistic liberal vision of international exchange, embodied in Paul’s sister Florence who withstands the vicissitudes of her own childhood, and his non-forced nephew.

For the chapter on the Great Ormond Street Hospital, Boehm brings together a range of contemporary journalistic texts, including clippings in the hospital’s own archive from still-unidentified sources, demonstrating ‘the tendency of Victorian renderings of pauper children to erase the child’s subjectivity and to turn it into a figure onto which many different meanings could be projected’ (97). She draws an interesting parallel between the old-fashioned architecture of Bleak House in the novel named for that ‘delightfully irregular’ (105-6) building, and that of the real hospital which re-used an eighteenth century one. It is argued that Dickens consistently supported the hospital’s ‘Mission’, but although Boehm quotes the passage from the 1862 All the Year Round article which approvingly reported ‘when a child dies and is taken to the deadhouse, minute scrutiny is made after death for the exact discovery and record of the physical causes of death’ (85), she does not note that Johnny’s idealised death in Our Mutual Friend is immediately followed (albeit with a chapter break) by his burial. Neither novel mentions the post-mortem ‘dissections’ which Dr Charles West, the hospital’s founding physician, highlighted in the preface to the first edition (1848) of his Lectures on the Diseases of Infancy and Childhood, a text to which Boehm refers throughout her monograph.

Our Mutual Friend also becomes the key novel of Chapter Five, in which the links between non-gradualist versions of pre-Origin of Species evolution, such as the Vestiges of Robert Chambers, and radical politics are explored. Henry James’s negative review of the novel, and in particular Dickens’s unsentimental creation of the disabled child Jenny Wren as ‘a little monster […] deformed, unhealthy, unnatural’, is foregrounded (150), but Boehm opts not to follow this into darker, albeit less metaphorical, directions such as an argument that such feelings about disabled people would result in increasingly segregative institutionalisation, sterilisation and even active killing, which Dickens perhaps foresaw and warned against. If the bodies of Jenny and the voracious Sloppy stand for revolt, Boehm’s suggestions specific to 1860s Britain are few, and the salience of the American James in this context might point to the rebellion of the southern United States as an attempt non-gradually to create a monstrous political entity which, if successful, would have had huge significance for the whole world. Dickens certainly followed that conflict closely.

As with Kaplan on mesmerism, it might have been better to more directly engage with Malcolm Andrews’s Dickens and the Grown-Up Child (1994) for the fourth chapter, on ‘the Study of the Child’s Mind’. Unsurprisingly, most of Boehm’s Dickens texts were also explored by Andrews, who devoted a whole chapter to ‘Where We Stopped Growing’, and her statement that this 1853 Household Words piece ‘touches on the more disconcerting aspects of the kind of stunted emotional and intellectual growth that make it possible for the adult to feel like a child’ (121) might be a reasonable summary of Andrews’s book, which took Wordsworth to be the primary source for Dickens on childhood. In The Mind of the Child (2013), for Victorian novelists as a whole, Sally Shuttleworth went further back, to Rousseau. Boehm’s own focus on contemporaries such as West and Herbert Spencer is of course wholly legitimate, but it would surely make sense to try and identify what was genuinely new in their ‘science’, as opposed to quasi-scientific reformulations of the romantic child and its alternatives. Many of her quotations point towards this: perhaps most strikingly, Spencer’s ‘a French child grows into a French man even when brought up amongst strangers’ (135).

Overall, Boehm’s claim to have shown ‘the scientific background and sophistication of Dickens’s engagement with the child’s material body and mind’ (173) is justified. It will be seen from the comments on Chapter Five that this reviewer believes there to be considerable scope for further studies of Dickens’s engagement with science. Hopefully, this review has suggested that some patriarchal texts of what Lyn Pykett called the ‘Dickens Industry’1 might still be valuable for them.

Neil MacFarlane, Birkbeck, University of London


1 Lyn Pykett, Charles Dickens (Critical Issues) (Houndmills: Palgrave 2002) p 1