Laurence Talairach-Vielmas, Wilkie Collins, Medicine and the Gothic

Laurence Talairach-Vielmas, Wilkie Collins, Medicine and the Gothic (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009). 224pp. £75 hb. ISBN 0708322239.

Teresa Goddu’s assertion that ‘Gothic registers its culture’s anxieties’ frames an important literary theme in the nineteenth century. With medical theories such as physiology that reduced ‘man to “matter”’ (p. 5), scientific revelations such as Darwin’s Origin of Species, and the assertion that ‘man’s criminal propensity was located in his brain’ (p. 6), contemporary cultural anxieties were those of a medical order, a central concern taken up by Wilkie Collins, Medicine and the Gothic. An author well known for his interest in the medical, Collins used his knowledge of contemporary fears to engineer sensational plots, drawing on accounts written by many respected medical figures in relation to madness, medicine and degeneration. Using examples from contemporary psychiatrists (alienists) such as Maudsley, who claimed that the supernatural was nothing but ‘“deranged mentalism,”’ Talairach-Vielmas highlights that to engender true fright in the Victorian age was to implement a spectre that haunted the mind and body in medical rather than supernatural terms.

Collins’s reliance on medical material is tackled and analysed by Talairach-Vielmas by placing some of Collins’s key works in the context of their age, and breaking down their gothic significance. It is this focus on Victorian culture which allows Talairach-Vielmas to analyse many of Collins’s novels through a pathological lens. For example, linked fears of degeneration, criminality and madness hinged on their near invisibility, their possible hidden presence in one’s friends, family or even self. Talairach-Vielmas tackles this focus on the untrustworthiness of sight, the invisible and the intangible via its medical roots in her early chapters on Basil and Armadale, underlining the need of the detective to ‘diagnose’ crime. Although she studies the use of gothic tropes in, for example, Armadale, she also picks up on Collins’s concerns with modernity’s influence on these problems of visibility, toying with the idea of identity in its physical forms and providing well-formulated insights into the manner in which Collins ‘capitalises on fears related to invisibility and immateriality’ (p. 54).

For Talairach-Vielmas, however, what is interesting is how ‘medicine stands at the crossroads’ (p. 54) of many of Collins’s narratives. Her reading of the spectralization of identity in Armadale, through the motif of Gwilt’s shadow (as seen in a dream) is a strong exploration of the blurred boundaries between the invisible/immaterial and Gwilt’s true persona, whilst providing an analysis of its presence as a textual sign that the chased shadow could be generated by the detective’s ‘own psychopathic obsession’ (p. 59). Talairach-Vielmas gives due prominence to the fears that the medicalised ‘diagnosis’ of crime offered by the detective could be due to bodily factors, as her reading of this scene suggests, reinforcing her claim that ‘the gap between the shadow and the shadow’s substance must be read through a medical prism’ as the ‘revision of the gothic quest into psychopathic obsession and its linkage of criminality and pathology obviously draw on nineteenth-century medical and criminological claims’ (p. 58).

Talairach-Vielmas’s acknowledgement of the fallibility of the medicalised signs of the invisible inner self in Collins’s reworking of the Gothic leads neatly to her later chapters, which analyse the ambiguous figures of scientists and doctors in the new gothic landscapes of the laboratory and surgery. She discusses experimental science and medicine by drawing attention to contemporary instances in which they overlap, paying special attention to the fields of poison and vivisection. Through such discussion, she is able to analyse the impact of these scientists (David Ferrier is one example) on the public imagination, which many of Collins’s later novels such as Jezebel's Daughter and Heart and Science gothicise and denounce. Talairach-Vielmas raises the neglected contention that, as well as male practitioners, these novels also implicate female figures with an interest in science and medicine in the victimisation of other women. The point Talairach-Vielmas raises is not in itself new: that the ‘double-bind familiar throughout the Victorian period [is that] weak-willed women justify male control, but strong-willed women render it even more necessary’ (p. 151). However her analysis of medical practitioners in Heart and Science alongside Collins’s concern that through Victorian prejudices women were vulnerable to medical malpractice justifies her sexualised evaluation that ‘the private secrets of the body give way to the professional’s knife,’ (p. 152) as she successfully examines fears of the doctor and scientist, with their gothic potential to endanger and debase women.

Talairach-Vielmas’s final chapter brings to the fore the issues of degeneration and inheritance in Collins’s suggestively-titled novel The Legacy of Cain. Although ideas of criminality as linked to degeneration percolate through many of Collins’s novels and the main thesis of this study, the final chapter highlights ‘Collins’s shift from a social to a purely biological construction of criminality’ (p. 16). By appraising hereditary transmission, the determinist nature of criminality is contrasted with the possibility of moral management, charting how ‘Collins’s use of theology enables him to deal with conscience and morality [foregrounding] the connections between the religious and the scientific discourse’ (p. 188). Talairach-Vielmas skilfully navigates this final chapter, using it a springboard to analyse another novel in the context of Darwinism and theological debate, and to bring her work full circle as a conclusion, examining the book in contrast to the earlier works she analyses in order to trace Collins’s progression through medicine and the Gothic.

Wilkie Collins, Medicine and the Gothic sheds new light on the position of criminality, the physical body, and the mind in Collins’s work through a thorough examination of contemporary medicine and its newly gothicised nature. The work is a good starting point for anyone interested in reading Collins’s novels for their criminal plots, examining the texts closely whilst implementing interdisciplinary scholarship, a burgeoning and important area of research in the study of Collins’s fiction. Talairach-Vielmas’s writing style fits a good deal into a condensed space without overwhelming the reader, something neglected by many critics and undeniably important when introducing and discussing a multitude of interdisciplinary material over a number of novels. Indeed, the number of novels studied is one of the strengths of this investigation, emphasising how thoroughly integrated the new modern Gothic of medicine and science is in the body of Collins’s work as well as those of his heroes and heroines. Talairach-Vielmas’s work is both interesting and readable, providing a focused study that examines exactly what it promises in the title.

Verity Burke, University of Reading