Tales of Two Jameses: Literature, science and medicine at the end of the nineteenth century

Daniel Ibrahim Abdalla has recently joined Diseases of Modern Life as a Graduate Research Assistant. Alongside this position, he is finishing his DPhil in nineteenth and early-twentieth century literature at the University of Oxford. In this blog post, he explores the links between his current research and his doctoral thesis.

As a research assistant with Diseases of Modern Life, I will be looking at fin-de-siècle representations of mental illness and addiction, especially as these afflictions were conceived as being transferred among hereditary lines. Partially, these concerns emerged from fin-de-siècle anxieties about decline and decadence, which encouraged people to look for visible signs that their hereditary materials were deteriorating from generation to generation. On the other hand, psychologists like William James explicitly resisted this dangerous paradigm.[1] Were others, like his brother Henry James, inspired by him? By taking a more expansive view of the ways that science informed society in this period, I hope to show the diversity of ways science affected culture in the nineteenth century, and beyond.

My interest in this topic emerges from my doctoral research on the novelist Henry James and the psychologist William James. The two were not only brothers, but intimate friends, regularly exchanging letters until the ends of their lives. Both significantly impacted and changed their respective fields at the turn of the century, and, despite being American, were deeply woven into the British intelligentsia. An expatriate in England for most of his life, Henry was friends was with many of the members of the Darwin family, even at one point meeting Charles himself. From 1894 to 1895, William was English Society for Psychical Research, whose members included Edmund Gurney and Frederic WH Myers.

One of the best sources for seeing the living connections of science and literature during this period is found in the correspondences between these two illustrious figures. Both weigh in on the other’s work; remark on pressing topics of the day like the American civil war, George Eliot, Queen Victoria, anarchism, and psychical research; and discuss relevant gossip regarding their wide circle of family members and acquaintances. And yet, although we might expect that these two well-connected, ambitious, epoch-making brothers to be discussing the great leaps in biology attracting attention elsewhere–topics like evolution, heredity, and development–these topics hardly make an appearance.

When I first started my DPhil, I spent a lot of my time accounting for this absence. How could someone as central to the period as Henry James be so far removed from biological concerns? Scholars of literature and science have used various models to understand interrelations between the disciplines at this time, but how might one explain this seeming gap in the network? What I have come to see is that popular engagement with scientific ideas did not only happen in terms of fixed ideas and concepts, like sexual selection, but also in attitudes toward issues like gender, sexuality, behavior and inheritance. If we approach late-Victorian society from this angle then we can see that readers and audiences were very regularly engaging with some of the cutting-edge developments in science–sometimes without even realizing it!

My research, both for my thesis and my current project, considers one of the major topics galvanizing late-Victorian culture, biological mechanisms of heredity. I became interested in this topic when I discovered that it attracted not only scientists and psychologists, but literary authors as well.[2] Although many of the broad claims of an evolutionary worldview had been established by the 1870s, one of the major controversies of the period had to do with the way individuals passed on traits from one generation to the next. The physical mechanisms of inheritance–genes–would not be known until the work of Gregor Mendel was rediscovered and popularized in the early-twentieth century, thus leading many thinkers to offer their own theories. In many cases these were reactions to the strictly Darwinian worldview based on random variation. True randomness was terrifying because changes in one generation could not be reliably passed to the following generation.

Writers like Samuel Butler and George Bernard Shaw preferred what they saw as progressive and perfectible models of evolution–most famously offered by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck–which allowed for improvement in the member of one generation to be passed on to his or her offspring. This biological controversy mixed extremely well with late-nineteenth century fears of cultural decline, creating the potent cocktail called degeneration.

These considerations have led me to my current project on conceptions and representations of inherited mental health in the late nineteenth century. As the critic Tamsen Wolff’s observes, in the cultural realm, such tensions about inheritance put new emphasis on the relationship between the visible and the invisible, ie. the person we can see and their biological material that we can’t.[3] Victorians increasingly asked questions like, what might someone’s traits or behaviors tell us about their fitness as a member of the species? From this flawed premise, leading to stronger and weaker versions of eugenics, one might even begin to wonder things like, what does a family home tell us about the quality of the family? Or, even, what does a person’s taste in art signify about their mental health? But these questions and their outdated emphases on eugenics only tell part of the story; I will use my time with Diseases of Modern Life to explore the other  conceptions of mental health in the period from 1880 to 1900.


[1] For example, in a letter to Henry from 1893, William calls the paradigm of degeneration a ‘pathological obsession’. William James, [to Henry James, 17 March 1893], in William and Henry James: Selected Letters (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997), pp. 281-83 (82)
[2] For more on the central role of evolution in the culture of this period, see the chapter ‘Evolution, Society, and Culture, 1875-1925’ in Peter J. Bowler, Evolution: The History of an Idea (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), pp. 274-324.
[3] Tamsen Wolff, Mendel’s Theatre: Heredity, Eugenics, and Early-twentieth Century American Drama (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)

Pre-Printed Diaries and Almanacs: An Aid to Managing the Diseases of Modern Life?

Hannah Wills, our new Research Assistant, introduces her work on Victorian diaries.  

In the Victorian period, individuals complained of the quickening pace of life, of a greater ‘velocity in thought and action’ than had ever been experienced before.[1] I’m interested in exploring the practical tools that were available to manage this phenomenon, in terms of personal information management on paper. One available solution was the pre-printed diary or planner, marketed as a useful receptacle for everything from financial transactions to social engagements, from the day’s weather to daily food intake. An advert in the Spectator for 23 December 1848 described two such commercial publications, Letts’s Diary, or Bills-Due Book, and Letts’s Indispensable Almanack, both produced by the highly successful Letts stationary company, founded in 1796 by John Letts. As the advert for Letts’s almanac promised, such products were invaluable in ‘enabling Everybody to secure to himself a faithful Record of the Past, the Present, and the Future’.

The origins of British pre-printed diaries can be traced back to mid-eighteenth-century almanacs and pocket diaries of a similar nature. These diaries and almanacs had a range of contents, including selections of useful reference information, usually at the front, including weights and measures, conversion charts and notable public holidays, alongside entertaining anecdotes, brain-teasing puzzles and dated blank spaces for the writing of diary entries. The nineteenth century saw an explosion in the number of printed diaries available for purchase, containing much of the same content.[2] One edition of Letts’s diary, published for the year 1874, began with a reference section that included the dates of the law and university terms, a list of the names and ages of the sovereigns of Europe and a table for calculating the interest on sums of money at different percentages. The rest of the diary was arranged with blank spaces for the insertion of dated diary entries, with two days set out per page.[3]

(Advert for Letts’s diaries from The Lancet, 7 Jan. 1871, Advertiser. Image credit: Google Books)

Pre-printed diaries and almanacs were marketed at a variety of individuals and professions in the nineteenth century. In a catalogue of their works for the year 1856, Letts, Son & Co. described a range of published editions of their popular diary. These included pocket versions, described as being of use to ‘Physicians’ and ‘Tourists’, as well as cheaper editions, more suited to ‘Mechanics, Warehousemen, &c’. Alongside those suited to particular professions, versions were also advertised ‘For Private Use, of Noblemen, Gentlemen, and Ladies’. Each edition was numbered, with different editions containing different reference information and a different arrangement of days printed on each page. A ‘new form for the pocket’, produced by Letts and marketed specifically at physicians, contained sections for recording daily appointments, births and vaccinations.

(The arrangement of the diary pages varied in different editions of the diary, as advertised in Letts’s catalogue. A Catalogue of Other Works, Published, Sold, or Manufactured by Letts, Son & Co. 1855. Image credit: Google Books)

Letts’s advertising positioned its products as practical aids for the management of time, as one solution to the problem of an increase in the pace of modern life. Musing on the general benefits of keeping a diary, Letts’s catalogue suggested to all diarists that ‘Before you lie down to sleep, or before you leave your dressing room in the morning… Read over the Entries of the Past Day to provide against any omission, and then those of to morrow (if there be any) to arrange your time in the most advantageous manner’.

Within the diaries themselves, one finds allusions to other modern ailments, including worry and mental strain. In addition to the reference sections at the beginning, and the middle pages used for recording daily activities, some diaries and planners contained adverts for other products. Letts’s number 42 diary for the year 1874 featured several full pages of adverts, some for items associated with stationary and the act of writing, including ‘Letts’s Patent Perpetual Inkstand’, Joseph Gillott’s ‘celebrated Steel Pens’, and a range of leather portmanteaus, expanding bags and cases, sold by John Pound & Co. Several medical adverts were also featured, including one for ‘Lamplough’s Pyretic Saline’, a patent medicine that promised to cure ‘Nervous Headache in a few minutes’. Just below was an advert for F. Walters & Co., ‘Manufacturers of Abdominal Supports For Ladies before and after Confinement’, and a range of ‘Artificial Legs, Arms, and Eyes’.

In the nineteenth century, patent medicines were often advertised in planners and almanacs. Many patent medicine companies designed and produced their own yearly planners, distributed for free, that featured adverts for their products alongside a reference calendar for the year.[4] It is possible that commercial stationers and patent medicine companies saw a connection between the desire to record one’s daily activities and engagements, and the desire to manage one’s health. It is striking that printed diaries and almanacs, tools for managing the pace of Victorian life, were also used to advertise medical products, some of which were aimed at combatting the diseases of modern life.


[1] James Crichton Browne, ‘The History and Progress of Psychological Medicine: An Inaugural Address’. Royal Medicine Society, Edinburgh, 1860. p. 9.

[2] Rebecca Steinitz, “Social Spaces for the Self: Organising Experience in the Nineteenth-Century British Printed Diary.” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 16, no. 2 (2001): 161-74.  Hazel Tubman, “The First Pre-Printed Diaries: Origins, Development and Uses of an Information Genre, 1700-1850.” PhD thesis, University of Oxford, 2016.

[3] Letts’s Diary or Bills Due Book, and an Almanack for 1874. London: Letts, Son & Co., 1873.

[4] Louise Hill Curth, “Medical Advertising in the Popular Press: Almanacs and the Growth of Proprietary Medicines.” Pharmacy in History 50, no. 1 (2008): 3-16.