Bringing up the Bodies

Dissection of a young beautiful woman3
Dismembered, disabled, drunken, endangered, drug-addled, dying, dead… This year’s Victorian Popular Fiction Association Annual Conference was teeming with human bodies in all shapes and sizes.

Whilst the conference (the fifth of its kind) didn’t deal exclusively with the physical form – the suitably open-ended theme ‘Bodies’ also attracted papers on ‘the body’ as a group of people, i.e. literary networks and round-robin writing – there was a considerable focus on corporeal bodies – of both the rich and the poor, the male and the female, the old and the young.

I only discovered the Victorian Popular Fiction Association (VPFA) by chance earlier this year, whilst absent-mindedly trawling through my Twitter feed. Someone I was following had Tweeted about a (then) upcoming VPFA research seminar, which I went along to out of curiosity. After enjoying its eclectic range of papers and friendly atmosphere, I promptly signed up to the annual conference – even before the programme had been released!

That conference took place on 10 and 11 July this week, in the Institute of English Studies at Senate House Library in Bloomsbury.

It attracted an exciting array of speakers, from around the country and even across the pond – Professor Pamela Gilbert, from the University of Florida, came by to deliver a fascinating paper on the Victorian experience of reading sentimental fiction. Dr Elizabeth Hurren (University of Leicester) gave a strikingly grisly-yet-moving opening plenary, which looked back at the legacy of the 1832 Anatomy Act, while guest speaker Rose Collis gave a wonderfully anecdote-strewn lecture on death and funeral rites in Victorian Britain.

The remainder of the conference was comprised of panel sessions – concurrent panel sessions, which left me torn over precisely which ones to attend! Those who didn’t attend this year’s conference should check out the full programme here, which gives a good indication of just how many interesting panels there were vying for my attention. I plumped for those which seemed most likely to feed my burgeoning interest in medicine and public health; an approach which still served me a gratifyingly wide variety of subject matter, from an assessment of the vampiric motif in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s short story ‘The Good Lady Ducayne’ to the presentation of physical disability in sensation fiction. It seems safe to say that an interest in medical humanities is most definitely thriving in the field of Victorian studies.

Despite the extraordinarily wide range of subjects, there were – to my mind – some notably recurring themes in many of the papers:

Medical ethics and malpractice – Dr Hurren’s paper set the scene for some serious reflection on the medical ethics – or lack of ethics – in the Victorian age. The body-trafficking of paupers for anatomical studies seemed initially to represent a dearth of medical ethics – yet the necessary and groundbreaking nature of these dissections was also emphasised.

It was particularly interesting to note that novel techniques and practices – such as the use of chloroform – often sparked fears about the possibility medical malpractice, yet old-fashioned methods were equally derided, as instances of quackery, lacking in intellectual rigour.

The fear of the unknown was clearly at play in nineteenth-century attitudes to medicine – particularly the anxiety that doctors, with their superior intellectual knowledge, could easily use that learning for nefarious ends, if so inclined. A number of papers – including those from Greta Depledge and Janine Hatter – highlighted the way in which sensation fiction explored and exploited these anxieties, by presenting a contrast between ‘good’ doctors (those with compassion and/or natural aptitude), and ‘bad’ doctors (those out to make money or mired in quackery).

The doctor-patient relationship – Debates about the ethics of Victorian medical professionals inevitably opened up discussion around the anxieties surrounding the doctor/ patient relationship. A number of papers returned to the notion that there could be something voyeuristic about the medical profession(al) and something intrinsically vulnerable about their patients – particularly if they were female, poor, and/or suffering from an addiction that rendered them particularly dependent.

Control/ lack of control over the body – A couple of the panels dwelt on themes of overindulgence; considering depictions of, and attitudes towards, alcoholism, drug addiction, and overeating. The ideas explored in these papers seemed to me to open up the possibility that overindulgence could represent both control over the body and a disturbing lack of control over it.

Indulgence in all forms of course raises the terrifying spectre of an ‘addiction’, signalling an apparent loss of control over ones appetites. But gluttony and excess are also ways in which humans can explicitly exercise control over their body – their own agency determining its health, or lack of. Alice Rowe’s analysis of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde gestured towards how the novel’s protagonist sits at the nexus of control/lack of control – his transition due to drugs he is personally experimenting with, but with effects that soon fall outside of his control.

Suicide – which was dealt with in Pam Lock’s paper – also seemed to sit somewhere between control and lack of it, representing the moment when a person could seize control over their fate, but primarily due to despair, a feeling that there was a lack of other options within their reach.

Gulf between rich and poor – Debates around the commodification of the human body, and its vulnerability, repeatedly exposed the chasm between the experiences of the rich and the poor. Whilst the rich person’s body – through disease, disability or addiction – could be rendered vulnerable, their lot was usually markedly better than that of the poor.

The invisibility and helplessness of paupers, epitomised by the possibility of their bodies being trafficked without their consent, was sensitively explored in a number of papers throughout the conference, from Dr Hurren’s opener, to Jessica Hindes’ analysis of the “undead poor” in GWM Reynolds’ Mysteries of London.

What struck me most about all these fascinating papers was how the issues they grappled with continue to resonate today, despite considerable medical and technological advances, and the fact that – in Britain, at least – we are fortunate enough to have a health service (mostly) free at the point of use and designed to be accessible to all, regardless of social standing or personal wealth.

The papers managed to both consider the distinctions between then and now – Collis, for example, highlighted how before the advent of the NHS most people died at home, whereas now many more die in hospital (perhaps explaining why the Victorians seemed much ‘closer’ to death) – but also highlight a number of parallels between the Victorians’ experience and the experience of many today. For instance, Dr Hurren emphasised that the harvesting of body parts remains ‘big business’ in the twenty-first century (largely on the web).

These sorts of sobering reflections characterise exactly why I find medical humanities so rich and rewarding. These studies are by turns delightfully grisly and wonderfully grotesque, but also moving and poignant. Throughout the conference, I was oscillating between emotions, as the papers raised tears to my eyes, grimaces of disgust, and a few laughs for good measure as well. For dissecting the corporeal form can evoke horror and pity, empathy and humour, and the papers at this year’s VPFA Conference were testament to this extraordinary array of emotional responses.

Picture courtesy of Wellcome Library, London (reproduced under Creative Commons)


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