S. Pearl Brilmyer, The Science of Character: Human Objecthood and the Ends of Victorian Realism

S. Pearl Brilmyer, The Science of Character: Human Objecthood and the Ends of Victorian Realism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022) 299 pp. £79.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780226815770

The Science of Character sets out to refute the traditional narrative of the rise of the novel as a ‘movement of character from inside to outside, surface to depth, and type to individual across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’ (221). It therefore represents a significant intervention into the history of the novel and, particularly, the study of Victorian realism. Deeply engaged with scholars such as Diedre Shauna Lynch, Fredric Jameson, and Catherine Gallagher, Brilmyer complicates the latter field by arguing that in late-Victorian ‘new realism’ ‘the long-recognized hallmarks of nineteenth-century realist character—interiority, individuality, and the capacity for intellectual and moral growth’ are replaced with ‘a more materialist set of ideas, among them: plasticity, impressibility, spontaneity, impulsivity, and relationality’ (223). She thus suggests that writers like George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Sarah Grand, and Olive Schreiner, among others, replace ‘human subjecthood’ with what she calls ‘human objecthood’ (45), defined as ‘physical aspects of existence that humans share with nonhuman animals and things’ (45). She thus suggests that ‘new realism’ attempts to blur the boundaries between the human and the nonhuman, in line with Victorian sciences like biology and ecology that increasingly understood humans to be enmeshed in and contiguous with the rest of the material world.

While Brilmyer discusses a wide range of Victorian scientists—Darwin, Huxley, Maxwell, Tyndall, and many more—it is the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s proposed science of ‘ethology’, or the study of ‘the forces—biological, environmental, and cultural—at work in the formation of character’ (1) that forms the basis of her analysis of literary character. She posits that for many nineteenth-century novelists, ‘character’ was neither biologically inscribed on the body, as pseudo-sciences like phrenology and physiognomy suggested, nor entirely internal and hidden, a product of the mind (47). Instead, she charts an understanding of character as material but not fixed, capable of transformation through social and physical interactions. Brilmyer thus questions the accepted ‘alignment of the realist novel with scientific ideals of bodily abnegation and self-restraint’ (27), like those outlined in Lorraine Daston’s and Peter Galison’s Objectivity (2007), and instead shows that later Victorian novelists used scientific research on sensation and perception ‘to account for rather than erase the role of the body in knowledge production’ (28). She thus charts a phenomenological approach to character, and to do so, she gives welcome attention to lesser-studied works of major authors, including Eliot’s Theophrastus, Hardy’s Well-Beloved, and Schreiner’s From Man to Man.

The book moves chronologically from 1870 to the 1920s. Chapters One and Two consider George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871) and Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879), respectively. In her analysis of the ‘plasticity’ of Middlemarch’s characters, Brilmyer treats Eliot’s figurative descriptions (such as referring to Arthur Brooke as ‘glutinous’) literally and considers the meaning that emerges from so doing. Here, she reads character through G. H. Lewes’s theory of ‘emergence’ or ‘the generation of new qualities through changes at different scales’ (66), to argue that in Eliot’s characters, physical matter both reflects and ‘participates in’ the development of character. Chapter Two builds on this idea to argue that realist fiction is not defined – as so many scholars have defined it before – by its representation of characters with ‘rich inner lives’, but rather by its presentation of characters in the same manner in which we experience real people: that is, from the outside, as a ‘nexus of traits’ (78). This is more than a ‘reality effect’; it is a reflection of ‘how character functions in reality’ (66). Thus, Brilmyer argues that fiction does not merely reflect reality, but is a site in which new information about reality can be generated.

Chapter Three considers the role of skin and skin colour in Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved: A Sketch of Temperament (1897), reading Hardy’s final novel as ‘anti-imperial fiction’, in which whiteness is not something natural or neutral, but something that must be ‘produced’ (139). She contrasts the idea of character as modifiable by its environment with the new sciences of heredity and eugenics, through the character of the artist Jocelyn Pierston. Pierston expects a repetition of face and character between mother and daughter, as the science of heredity might suggest, but instead finds that though the three generations of Caro women share the same face, they are temperamentally different. Brilmyer reads this as an assertion of ‘the tendency of character to accumulate new qualities in response to its environment’, in line with Darwin’s theory of speciation (129), and thus a rejection of many of the core tenets of eugenics and its racist applications.

Chapters Four and Five consider Arthur Schopenhauer’s theory of the Will, its reception in England in the second half of the nineteenth century, and its impact on New Woman writers. Brilmyer suggests that Schopenhauer’s argument that while ‘all subjects experience their own actions subjectivity as will, others experience them objectively, as a collection of physical traits and qualities that lend them their specific character’ (160) granted ‘dynamic power to the material world’ and thus broke down boundaries between the human and the nonhuman, as well as the masculine and feminine. For this reason, it particularly appealed to New Women writers, who ‘draw attention to the objecthood of all humans by highlighting the extent to which all character is shaped by forces beyond individual control’ (148). Chapter Five develops the idea of ‘ethological realism’, or fiction with an ethics of care,in the work of Olive Schreiner, particularly her posthumous novel From Man to Man or Perhaps Only (1926). Here Brilmyer argues that description is neither neutral nor merely descriptive. Instead, the movement between realist description and philosophical treatise within the novel demonstrates Schreiner’s ‘passionate belief in the power of scientific observation to ground social critique’ (192) and the role of the material body in the production of knowledge (201). Even more so, Brilmyer argues that it demonstrates that ‘when realist fiction attends to the observable, the particular, and the contingent, it theorizes’ (201).

This final argument, with which the main body chapters of The Science of Character conclude, will be of most interest to members of BSLS. Throughout the book, Brilmyer contends that both scientists and writers in the late Victorian period understood fiction as a site that could generate important insights into how character operates in the real world (77). In this way, she suggests that fiction theorizes, in the form of ‘weak theories’, a term coined by the psychologist Silvan Tomkins to describe theories that ‘focus on the particular and the contingent’ rather than the abstract or general (39). Weak theories, Brilmyer contends, allow for movement between ‘the particular and the general, the micro and the macro’ (40). Brilmyer argues that this mediation between the ‘necessary and the accidental’, the focus on circumstance, is ideological, a way of resisting late Victorian ideas like biological essentialism, eugenics, and Social Darwinism.

Overall, The Science of Character is a compelling account of an under-theorized period in Victorian realism, and thus makes important contributions to the fields of Victorian literature and the history of science. While focused on a specific moment (and movement) in fiction, Brilmyer’s argument for what fiction can achieve that science cannot will be of interest to literature and science scholars beyond Victorianists. However, the study does have some flaws. Though literary texts are the focus of each chapter, the novels are only briefly referred to, with very little quotation. The lack of concrete examples from the fiction makes the argument hard to follow at times, a problem exacerbated by moments of overly dense prose. On the whole, The Science of Character presents fascinating examples of materialist description in the chosen texts, but these examples do not coalesce into a fully convincing theory of realism.

Jordan Kistler, University of Strathclyde

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