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)


The Gent and the Ballet-Girl

Earlier this year, Huffington Post writer Candace Davis asked whether ‘people-watching’ – sitting in the window of a café and analyzing passers-by – was an entirely harmless exercise. In an age of camera phones, youtube uploads, and Google Glass, it seems that the idea of what is acceptable behaviour towards strangers in public is being reconfigured. People-watching itself, though, isn’t – as Davis noted – a new phenomenon, and the desire to people-watch is certainly noticeable in the nineteenth century. The activity of promenading – taking a leisurely walk through a scenic or popular area – was more than simple physical activity, being a way for ladies and gentlemen turned out in their finest clothes to both see and be seen. Judith Walkowitz has highlighted how participating in public space had its darker side too, with street harassment an increasingly common occurrence for urban women in late Victorian London.

This awareness of public space as an arena in which one’s behaviour and appearance were on show is beautifully captured by a series of mid nineteenth-century works by Albert Richard Smith, whose comic writing provides a fascinating window onto social attitudes of the day. Born in 1816, Smith followed in his father’s footsteps to become a surgeon. His literary endeavours rather seem to have eclipsed the medical, however: he contributed to Punch, set up his own magazine titled The Man in the Moon, and penned a popular account of his ascent of Mont Blanc that was turned into a stage show. His medical background showed through in many of his works. The humorous ‘Confessions of a Dissecting Room Porter’ series in the Medical Times and Gazette followed the fortunes of porter Jasper Buddle, whilst he transformed modern society into a kind of scientific space for observation in The Physiology of Evening Parties (1846) and The Natural History of the Gent (1847).

The Natural History of the Gent was one of a series of ‘social zoologies’ (as they were described by Smith) that could be scathing in their lampooning of contemporary social groups. Smith reserved his most furious contempt for the Gents, a group ‘of comparatively late creation’. ‘Social naturalists had overlooked [them]’, he said, yet they could be seen all over London. ‘[T]he finest specimens may be seen in the coloured “fashions”, with which certain comically-disposed tailors adorn their windows’, he wrote. The Gent thinks he is ‘rather the thing’, strutting around town like a peacock making useless loud remarks and harassing passing women. He emerges after dusk when his day’s work is completed, and his natural habitat is the theatre – though at certain times of the year he can be seen migrating, with other Gents, to Gravesend or Ramsgate.


The ‘lounger’.

Subtly different to the Gent was the ‘Idler upon Town’, who was meticulously sub-divided into further categories in The Natural History of the Idler upon Town (1848). Here we meet the ‘West-End loungers’ and ‘Mooners’, who – like magpies – are captivated by the shiny displays of London shop windows, standing ‘riveted by the lollipops, oyster-shells, [and] rashers of saccharine bacon’. The ‘Street Boys’ were more troublesome, like mosquitoes ‘who sting and buzz about you, but are never to be caught’, shouting rude remarks to passing gentlemen and begging for coppers.

Smith was rather more complimentary about the female of the species in The Natural History of the Ballet-Girl (1847). ‘We have disposed of The Vermin in the Gents. Let us hope in the Ballet-girl we may now take up a more agreeable subject – The Butterflies.’ The ballet-girl, like the butterfly, passes through several phases to become a ‘flying fairy’, working arduous hours and carrying out menial household tasks before reaching the glory of the stage. She is fond of finery and flowers, but also more basic delights: she ‘prefers stout to champagne’ and has ‘a great notion of coffee’.

ButterflyWhilst the classification or ‘typing’ of people in the nineteenth century often takes on a sinister aspect – Alphonse Bertillon’s attempts to codify the criminal body, for example – Smith’s series is a light-hearted endeavour, comparing human and animal social groups for comic effect. Like The Telegraph’s ‘Social Stereotypes’ series – The Party Blonde, The Embarrassing Parents, etc. – Smith’s pieces, in their biting satire, could be read with amusement by the self-confessed Gent as well as his critics. I like to think that Smith himself was too much of a gentleman (decidedly not a Gent) that, had he found himself in the digital age, he wouldn’t have channelled his wit into People of Walmart-style blogs or Reddit threads, but I’ve no doubt he would have spent many an hour reading them…

Jennifer Wallis.