Book reviews in the Journal of British Studies

Having rejoined, after several years hiatus, the North American Conference on British Studies, I am getting caught up with my journal reading. Naturally I am emphasizing the nineteenth century, but haven’t found any pertinent articles in this year’s issues. In the book reviews, however, are several items to make note of.

From April 2017:

Katheleen Frederickson’s The Ploy of Instinct: Victorian Sciences of Nature and Sexuality was reviewed by Kate Holterhoff. Apparently during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, there was an idea that instinct was the opposite of, or could replace, rational thought, and tended to do so in groups that were “less equipped to reflect on their own self-conscious” (animals, women, primitive peoples and, I assume, children). Instinct was a controversial idea, one indispensable to scientists and political thinkers but also hated. The most interesting point to me was from the fourth chapter, which contained the example of suffragette hunger strikers. In refusing to eat, these women negated the idea that they were not rational people, because they were dismissing the instinct of survival for a higher purpose.

Graham Mooney’s Intrusive Interventions: Public Health, Domestic Space, and Infectious Disease was reviewed by Nicola Shelton. The focus was on the intrusive nature of notification systems designed to increase public health. As with other politically forced breakthroughs in hygiene, such as London’s sewer system, there was no national policy and thus local authorities had the freedom to develop plans and schemes. For this reason, it’s a difficult area to study, but apparently Mooney was able to go into much detail. He examined disease surveillance and control as both a need and a risk to making the problem worse, as people resisted the reporting requirements. Landlords would not want to report sick people and lose rent money. Teachers, who were told they must report disease (rather like I am told to report child abuse), were usually not qualified to diagnose anything and, since they were often paid per pupil, weren’t necessarily willing anyway. Wealthy people were both treated differently and had their own self-imposed systems of isolation, staying home and hiring nurses instead of going to hospital. Forced isolation, though, could keep people from visiting the sick and being helpful. But what was most interesting was that even when notification and isolation were employed, there is no evidence they reduced mortality. Also of interest is that Mooney apparently claims a move away from the dependence on government action because of tuberculosis, which couldn’t benefit from disinfection (the latest trend in hygiene) or hospitalization. Thus the market and the household became the centers of medical care. The balance between individualism and collective good has always interested me, and no more so than in Britain, which in the Victorian era rejected both public health measures and a national education system, but would ultimately create the NHS.

From July 2017

Tina Young Choi’s Anonymous Connections: The Body and Narratives of the Social in Victorian Britain was reviewed by Pamela K. Gilbert. The idea here is to replace the usual literary analysis of affective relationships between characters with a focus on the corporal. What Choi adds is apparently the idea that Victorian liberal individualism was countered by an alternative of multiple anonymous connections with others. It is possible to see the elements of disease and psychology in many literary works as related to this tension, and that good things (new friendships) could result from such contacts, but beyond that I had trouble understanding the focus when the reviewer got into posthumanism. I had to look it up. As near as I can tell, posthumanism denies the Renaissance idea of man as the measure of all things, acknowledging humanity as only one element in the world. I’m not sure I’ve ever thought otherwise. The reviewer claimed that one of Choi’s achievements in her book is to offer a view of society that goes beyond “traditional identity categories”. Um…ok.

And last the most interesting:

Kate Hill’s Women and Museums, 1850-1914: Modernity and the Gendering of Knowledge was reviewed by Barbara Black. Now, I get annoyed immediately with words like “gendering”, even though I am fine acknowledging that such work (history from feminist, racial, or other perspectives) is necessary until such time as everyone is fully integrated into the traditional narratives. I also had to read the review itself with a dictionary in hand, the word usage was so complex. But I happen to have a particular interest in museums as places where history is interpreted, and those interpretations shared with laypeople, very much like in my job as a community college professor. We may unnecessarily point out that women were a factor in museum culture, as visitors, donors, curators, volunteers. But beyond that, the “porous” nature of the museum in daily life, the way people of all walks of life go in and out, makes them uniquely influential in ordinary society. Museums in many ways put women on the “outside”, but they also afforded them opportunities. Although careful not to pinpoint the affective domain as “female”, the book seems to have implied that an emphasis on affect (as opposed to straightforward factuality) is somehow attributed to women’s influence. Women were at the forefront of popular Victorian enthusiasms like Egyptology (and presumably Chinoiserie), and the implication here is that they shaped museums as cultural institutions. It reminds me of the educated women in the 18th century who forced Latin-writing male philosophers to have their work translated and discuss it in salons so more people could have access.