Rachel Ablow, Victorian Pain

Rachel Ablow, Victorian Pain (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 2016) 208 pp. $39.95 Hb. ISBN: 9780691174464

Victorian Pain explores the ways in which nineteenth-century thinkers tried to reconcile the deeply personal nature of pain, with its unavoidably social manifestations. From the outset Rachel Ablow asserts that her focus is not on representations and constructions of pain, ‘but instead [on] how pain was used by writers at a particular time’ (4). In other words, Victorian Pain is interested in how pain as a simultaneously isolating yet public experience (because one which provoked sympathy from others) was adopted as a language with which to describe broader relationships between society and the self.

The book is constructed as a series of case studies on J S Mill, Harriet Martineau, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Darwin and Thomas Hardy. The generic breadth of the texts it considers – political, scientific and literary – is much to the book’s credit, highlighting the range of Victorian engagement with the nature of pain. Unfortunately, it is not clear how these case studies hang together to form a more developed argument; the selected writers have important things to say about the nature of pain, but read as a whole Victorian Pain comes out as less than the sum of its parts.

An introductory chapter outlines twentieth-century thinking on pain, rooted in Elaine Scarry’s ‘epistemological approach’. This emphasizes the need to communicate one’s pain (and reciprocally to understand the pain of others), while at the same time recognising the ultimate unknowability of pain that is not one’s own. Ablow points out the limitations of Scarry’s view with reference to Wittgenstein and Cavell. But although these more recent thinkers do address the problems encountered by their Victorian forebears, it is not apparent that the inclusion of more recent theorists adds to the argument of the book. Ablow is more convincing when, as in the second part of the introduction, she focuses purely on Victorian contemporary thought.

The first two chapters, on Mill and Martineau, constitute the strongest part of the book, and are the only two case studies which have a convincing connection. For Mill the ultimate question to ask of pain was how it fits into a utilitarian model of society. How can we objectively gauge the limits of individual pain and pleasure in order to set the parameters of individual endurance within a utilitarian state? Mill took issue with the views of his father and Bentham (not least because of the failings of John Stuart’s own education), who believed that persons could be educated in the goals of utilitarianism, via individual pains and pleasures.

Martineau too was interested in this utilitarian approach, but where Mill rejected its possibilities, Martineau saw some way towards making social and personal experiences compatible. Her exploration of pain in the Autobiography and Life in the Sick Room are some of the most vivid nineteenth-century descriptions of long-term illness, and the isolation magnified by sympathy from those who are not in pain. Ablow does a good job of contrasting Martineau’s belief in the ‘educatability of perception’ with Mill’s scepticism. For Martineau, sympathy with the sufferer can be productive when the sympathizer accepts that they cannot enter into the sufferer’s pain. Martineau saw value in the isolation of the sick room as providing a vantage point on society. In Life in the Sick Room this provides Martineau with a route into overtly political discussions. However these, and her important distinction between brief spells of pain and long-term illness, are not addressed by Ablow.

Ablow writes that for Martineau, ‘any form of social engagement traps the sufferer in a social identity, that is itself an effective source of pain’ (61). Although not discussed by Ablow, this aspect of Martineau’s writing is vividly realized in Brontë’s Villette when the De Bassompierres learn that Lucy is a teacher. The revelation evokes pity from both father and daughter, with the former wishing Lucy ‘health and strength’ (316) in her calling. This scene encapsulates a central theme of the novel: Lucy suffers most as a consequence of her social isolation when it is drawn out and framed by the pity of others. In her chapter on Brontë, Ablow rightly teases out this aspect of Villette using examples different from the one above – that the denial of the social and the intensification of personal suffering are both cause and effect.

The penultimate chapter looks at the transformative potential of pain through the writings of Charles Darwin. Darwin observed that nature was indifferent to individual suffering, and he extended this indifference to the social sphere by describing it using the language of biological processes. Ablow argues that Darwin’s use of figurative language to create ambiguity, was intended to maintain the equilibrium between an ecosystem and its individual parts. This is an important point, and is one which develops on existing work on Darwin’s use of figurative language to hold two ideas in balance. But it is not contextualized within this critical history, best developed by Gillian Beer. Instead Spinoza and affect theory form the basis of Ablow’s argument that for Darwin pain was a key part of the mutability of nature, and not part of the positive, progressive education of man. This chapter is the weakest both because of its confusing reliance on Spinoza, and its omission of more appropriate critical works on Darwin and metaphor, aside from a brief note.

Chapter Five includes some good close readings of Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders, Far From the Madding Crowd, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Ablow uses these close readings to demonstrate that for Hardy pain constituted ‘a condition of possibility for experiencing ourselves as part of a universe that suffers’ (134). Hardy’s characters feel pity for – or perhaps more appropriately are able to empathize with – others who are in pain. They are therefore able to contextualize their own pain within a wider state of omnipresent suffering. Marty, Gabriel and Tess are able to use Darwin’s vision of a natural world in a constant cycle of pain, death and renewal, to bring perspective to their own condition.

There are some strong aspects of Victorian Pain, notably the close readings of Brontë, Hardy and, in the conclusion, George Eliot. But overall the book is incredibly dense, and after multiple readings it is still unclear how the individual chapters form a coherent argument. Victorian Pain consists of well-selected nineteenth-century texts, which demonstrate the complexity of pain, then as now, which are hampered by the unnecessary theoretical structures that have been applied to them. Removing these frameworks and developing the analysis of the texts within their Victorian context would strengthen the connections between chapters, making the overall argument clearer, and the book far easier to read.

Sarah Hanks, University of Oxford