Victorian mores and madness

Emodies Selves
May 7, 1999

Given the media's fascination with the impact of science on culture, a user-friendly anthology of 19th-century "psychological" texts is a timely contribution, particularly to debate surrounding psychical phenomena and the "borderline" between the mind and social reality.

In Victorian culture science had no inside or outside. Similarly, the mind/body binary was rejected by "various forms of a materialist science of the self". The social dimension of psychological thought dominates this contextualist study: the individual body (conscious and unconscious) was theoretically linked to cultural narratives of change.

Thus we can see our collective selves here: the baby as scientific object (a satire on doting "new" fathers), adolescent anxieties (Henry Maudsley's 1870 "Insanity of pubescence"), adult desires (an 1851 theory of young women's attraction to uniformed men), stress (articles on the psychological effects of industrial occupations) and - to counter nostalgia - Frances Power Cobbe's analysis of "false memory syndrome".

The editors reconstruct the "ruined temple" of the mind, signposting the 118 extracts (mementos) with cross-referenced headnotes, biographical summaries and introductions that trace the intellectual histories of the five themed sections.

The organisational narrative takes us from ways in which the "invisible" mind could be read in visible signs on the body (phrenology, physiognomy), to attempts to decode messages left by the unconscious mind (dreams, memory), to theories of mind-body fusion, where insanity was inscribed on the sexualised (female) body, to broader cultural preoccupations - degeneration, education and social responsibility.

The related issue of psychology's respectability concerned Victorian readers. If thought was hidden and unknowable were "scientific" attempts to understand it all a matter of illusion? Or would man, "that inexplicable being", be made known by studying the brain?

The anthology effectively represents the variety of theories drawn on in medical and scientific textbooks and popular journals. One commentator regards dreams as revelations, another warns against their stimulation by a diet of cheese, cucumbers and almonds. Case histories are literary narratives and "medical" texts cite literary examples (the status of the fictional extracts within this collection is, however, unclear).

Increasingly, modern society was blamed for manufacturing mental distress while rendering memory less effective. Key debates (insanity and inheritance, racial ancestry) are thoroughly covered in sections three to five, although the sense in which some extracts are "psychological" is dissipated.

Inevitably, an anthology, like cultural memory, has gaps. More women writers could have been included, given the emphasis on attitudes towards female sexuality. And psychology's role within Victorian visual culture - its symbiotic relationship to technologies and theories of observation - is suppressed.

Nonetheless Embodied Selves will appeal to a range of readers. It will be particularly useful as a guide to pseudo-psychological science before Freud and as a source for non-specialists in the fields of history of science, Victorian culture and gender studies.

As an account of the formation of the self it is fascinating, alarming and strangely comforting. The social inheritance of the "self-help" manuals in Waterstone's bookshops is revealed.

Inga Bryden is senior lecturer in English, King Alfred's College, Winchester.

Emodies Selves: An Anthology of Psychological Texts -1830-1890

Editor - Jenny Bourne Taylor and Sally Shuttleworth
ISBN - 0 19 871041 0 and 71042 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 430

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