Tina Young Choi, Anonymous Connections: The Body and Narratives of the Social in Victorian Britain

Tina Young Choi, Anonymous Connections: The Body and Narratives of the Social in Victorian Britain (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 2016) 192 pp. $65.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-0-472-11972-1

We live, Tina Young Choi reminds us, in an age of proliferating virtual networks, pervasive economic globalisation, and the transmission of diseases such as Ebola and influenza across continents. We are connected and interconnected in myriad ways which give rise to questions about the meaning and ethics of social belonging, and about how we ‘imagine ourselves in relation to the many individuals with whom we share countless possibilities for connection’ (1). These questions, as Choi’s study demonstrates, are by no means unique to our present moment. Journalists, novelists, social reformers, and science writers were negotiating the nature and limitations of social interaction as well as its physiological, and psychological effects throughout the nineteenth century. In an expansive analysis of this period’s preoccupation with forms of bodily connection across literary and scientific texts, Anonymous Connections draws our attention to the unpredictable and often surprisingly productive spaces of interaction – both voluntary and involuntary – which existed between individual bodies of the nineteenth-century. It demonstrates that new understandings of the boundaries of the human body in social interaction generated new narrative forms in order to represent those boundaries. Of interest to scholars of nineteenth-century literary and cultural studies, Choi makes a convincing case for the holistic study of Victorian literature, medicine, and science, as each is shown to have borrowed from and expanded upon the existing narrative strategies of other disciplines.

Choi begins by outlining the new statistical sciences of the 1830s and 1840s, which moved from the use of numbers representing single individuals to the more abstract figures that appeared primarily as rates and percentages within populations. This, she argues, shaped understandings of social belonging by presenting the social as a sphere of involuntary inclusion, and by inviting readers ‘to imagine themselves as social beings, drawn into a kind of loose, unwilled affiliation’ (25). Unlike financial speculations and investments, the kinds of risk that were imposed by the urban environment – its threats of disease, contagion, and violence – were events that could only be understood in relation to large numbers of people and bodies. Moreover, the inclusiveness and anonymity of the statistical risk implicit in social belonging was not only invoked across sanitary and social reform writing but mid-Victorian novels, which offered at once a reflection of and an exercise in social thinking. In support of this claim, Choi offers a compelling close reading of the ways in which social risk is fictionalised in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, as a world of risk and chance in which deaths occur with alarmingly casual regularity, is brought into conflict with a world driven by moral action and decision in which death is the result of poor moral choices.

Having established the significance of this new discourse of risk as a social condition largely independent of human agency, in which the individual finds himself or herself involuntarily immersed, Choi examines new understandings of the material connections forged between individual bodies across different Victorian social classes, including miasma, contagion, bodily waste, body parts, and bacteria. In each instance, she considers the role of Victorian narrative in both reflecting and generating such forms of social participation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dickens dominates her literary analyses. Urban investigatory writings on miasma emphasised body’s permeability and susceptibility to disease-bearing elements in the atmosphere, while mid-Victorian Gothic and sensation novels elaborated on this conception of the body, transforming unwilling forms of contact into willing and even desired acts of participation through fiction. As accounts of contagion, and in particular reports of cholera’s transmission were debated within medical and wider communities, individuals were understood to be connected through more distant bodies across space and time, and this promoted a new form of multi-plot narrative, such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Dickens’s Bleak House, which were adapted to represent these more complex social relations. Bodily effects thought to link individuals through disease also, Choi claims, supplied a model for more productive connections, in which new structures posited in works by Mayhew and Playfair might contain, economise, and recycle the ‘material instantiations of waste’ that ‘littered both the streets and pages of the period’ (80), pages such as those in Dickens’s Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, which are filled with London’s waste. However, as we see in Choi’s chapter on the debates about anatomical dissection and the Anatomy Act of 1832, the potential for contact and contagion between bodies did not stop with life, and accounts of corpses accumulating in the cities are reflected in the anatomical language and dispersal of bodies and body parts in the novels of Dickens, particularly Our Mutual Friend and A Tale of Two Cities. Finally, Choi turns to popular accounts of bacteriology in the latter decades of the century as an alternative model of social belonging. Here, disease was no longer the result of vapours, miasma, and human contact, but of microscopic bodies that might occupy an unwitting human body and thus give material form to earlier notions of proximity. In both popular science writing and in novels such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, representations of the bacterium as a foreign and invasive body drew upon the language of colonialism in order to articulate and to expound upon the concept of the germ in familiar terms.

Narratives of bodily connections and interactions reflect, as Choi shows, nineteenth-century anxieties derived from class, gender, race, sanitation, and urban expansion. However, the spaces of social belonging and interaction are also spaces of physiological contact, and the potential dissolution and transmission of bodies and body parts also served somewhat paradoxically to remove the body from markers of social and cultural identity, and render it mere matter that might be exhaled, excreted, reconfigured, and dispersed throughout the population at large. Ultimately, in Choi’s study, the body is ‘a site of seemingly infinite potential for exchange and dispersal’ (150), and, while challenging our own cultural investment in the autonomy of the individual, it is one that offers the possibility of intensified forms of intimacy and connection.

Melissa Dickson, University of Oxford