Suzanne Keen, Thomas Hardy’s Brains: Psychology, Neurology, and Hardy’s Imagination

Suzanne Keen, Thomas Hardy's Brains: Psychology, Neurology, and Hardy's Imagination (Columbus: Ohio State University Press 2014) xiii + 236 pp. Hb $64.95 , Pb $25.95 , CD $14.95. ISBN: 978-0-8142-1249-3

Suzanne Keen begins her book by discussing the sexologist Havelock Ellis's review of 'Hardy's Novels' from 1883.1 She highlights his observation that when anonymously published some nine years earlier, 'it seemed obvious to one or two critics that Far from the Madding Crowd was written by George Eliot'. This revealing error, Ellis argues, rests on 'a shared delicacy of insight', 'a preoccupation with love' and 'a singularly charming reticence in its delineation'. Indeed what these two apparently have in common is a kind of feminine acuity, or more modishly, psychological insight. Thus, via psychology, Ellis goes on to align Hardy with the big guns: Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot. Unlike them however, (and this is Keen's point), Hardy has not attracted the 'Literature and Psychology' scholarship that congregates around them.

Keen's book is ambitious but also meticulous. It brings a cutting edge to Hardy Studies, following the trail blazed by Anne Stiles in her work on the intersection between Victorian popular fiction and early brain science. It sets out to do three things: to show that Hardy was 'deeply engaged in the medical neurology and psychology of his time'; to 'join a conversation going on in the new field of cognitive historicism' which supplements the more ordinary historicist reading exemplified by the first objective; and to participate in 'a cultural history of the emotions and their disorders'.

To support these aims the book is divided into five chapters looking at 'Psychological Influences on Hardy'; 'The Minds of Hardy's Characters'; 'Emotions and Cognition in Hardy's Verse'; then his claimed 'Neurological Turn' of the 1880s in which he moves towards realising a more physiologically accurate rendering of brains and nerves such that people/characters can be ignorant of their own motivations and asleep to the world. This, she argues, follows an almost Huxleyan view of automatism, a point Stiles has made in connection with fin-de-siècle gothic fiction. Finally the chapter 'Empathetic Hardy' builds on Keen's earlier work Empathy and the Novel (2007) to explore 'his belief that individual altruism might yet diminish the painful drama of human existence' and his use of aesthetic Einfühlung (171). Here Keen discusses Hardy's exposure to Vernon Lee's notion of 'empathy'. The book is thus organised not by novel, poem or chronology, but by the theory which enables its approach. Whilst this will not satisfy all, the present reviewer found it refreshing - perhaps with the caveat that some texts, notably his verse epic The Dynasts and later novel The Woodlanders, are given more prominence than others.

Hardy's Literary Notebooks edited by Lennart A. Björk, as Keen acknowledges, have already demonstrated that he was a rapacious reader. Indeed, the textual psychological influences on Hardy can feel like a roll call of nineteenth-century psychology's great and good: Henry Maudsley, Charles Darwin, Théodule Ribot, Henry Head, Herbert Spencer, G. H. Lewes, Alexander Bain, William James, Fourier, Comte and so on. Keen's views, however, on how Hardy extrapolated these ideas are intriguing. For example, Hardy's pictorial representation of Fourier's passions - a sketch of a tree trunk held in check by the vines of will and intellect - is linked to 'the "Impossible Monsters" of all three components', which are 'suggestive of characters in later novels: Knight, an impossible monster of the intellect; Boldwood, an impossible monster of the passions; Bathsheba, an impossible monster of the will' (22). For Keen, even in earlier texts such as Under the Greenwood Tree, some years before his full 'Neurological Turn', Hardy makes reference to the 'brain as a container of knowledge and as a delicate organ vulnerable to shocks', so that whilst his texts do not give unfettered access to the emotional content of mind they 'presciently model a theory of embodied cognition emphasizing affect'; and we extrapolate that bodily signs are read by other characters (8). Keen also points out Hardy's against-the-grain, optimistic reading of Maudsley to imply that fiction-writing offered the hopeful possibility of changing minds constrained only by habit and convention.

The real grit of her argument though is in the book's second chapter on character. If a psychological, or neurologizing, gaze has usually been associated with free indirect discourse, multiple perspectives and cruel sarcasms, Keen's book argues for Hardy's equally effective use of 'thought report' (or 'psycho-narration'), a term she co-opts from Alan Palmer's Fictional Minds (2004). Although Hardy eschewed free indirect discourse, this does not make his work any less psychological, for, as she puts it: 'The familiar story goes like this: representations of mind develop from old-fashioned thought report (characteristic of ancient epic and narratives before the novel) into the psychologically revealing free indirect discourse that flowers with realism until the flow of interior monologue begins, by which high modernism sweeps away the controlling channels of a narrator's omniscient perspective. Abandoning this simplifying narrative of formal progress helps us first to observe how many nineteenth-century novelists incorporated all three modes in their handling of characters' internal states of mind (56)'.

This book will be essential reading for Hardy scholars, and more broadly, rewarding for those following the direction in which 'Literature and Psychology' studies are travelling. Perceptions of Hardy as an arch-pessimist are not debunked by Keen's work but are persuasively explained. Whereas George Eliot may have offered a comparatively upbeat narrative of evolutionary progress, Hardy's own earlier evolutionary meliorism faded so that he came 'to entertain ideas about human automatism and an indifferent universe that resist recuperation to narratives of progress' (132). Emotions, for Hardy it seems, were essentially a cruelty.

Ellis, Havelock. ‘Thomas Hardy’s Novels. ’Westminster Review (April 1883): 334 – 364. 364.

Lindsey Stewart, Open University

 

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