B Potter
Beatrix Potter, ‘Studies of nine beetles’ © Frederick Warne & Co. 2006. Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Recently, I was giving a talk on Victorian sensation fiction and I wanted to stress the ways in which this genre emphasizes materiality and the experiential dimension of the body. I linked the genre’s investment in the matter of the body to what some critics have called ‘the material turn.’ Many contemporary critical fields – feminist theory, ecocritism, postcolonial theory, critical posthumanism, and social and cultural geography – have seen a renewed interest in embodiment and the senses. Theorists in these fields frequently engage with phenomenology, referencing and building upon Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of the body as a phenomenal, changing, and lived body that alters as it interacts with an environment to which it both responds and shapes. Yet such an emphasis is also visible in Victorian writing, as critics like William Cohen, in his excellent Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses (2009), have shown. So what many contemporary critics have called the materialist turn is in some senses, a material return.

In my current work, I’m specifically interested in the ways that sensation fiction puts into practice – or at least into representational form – a materialist understanding of the body in the world. An example that demonstrates this comes from Thomas Hardy’s first novel Desperate Remedies (1871). In this scene, the heroine’s clothes touch those of a man to whom she is attracted and send “a thrill through” her. The narrator explains:

His clothes are something exterior to every man; but to a woman her dress is part of her body. Its motions are all present to her intelligence if not to her eyes; no man knows how his coat-tails swing. By the slightest hyperbole it may be said that her dress has sensation. Crease but the very Ultima Thule of fringe or flounce, and it hurts her as much as pinching her. Delicate antennae, or feelers, bristle on every outlying frill.

There is much to say about this passage – and what I consider (maybe optimistically) to be the tongue-in-check sexism of the narrator – but what is striking here is the way in which the heroine seems to be all sensation; the materiality of her body extends into her clothing, which itself mimics the behavior of insects. This reminded me of a passage I came across while reading Cohen’s book: it’s a description by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which he wrote after visiting the Victorian writer Harriet Martineau in 1854. Hawthorne records his impression of Martineau, who was nearly deaf and used an ear-trumpet:

all the while she talks, she moves the bowl of her ear-trumpet from one auditor to another, so that it becomes quite an organ of intelligence and sympathy between her and yourself. The ear-trumpet seems like a sensitive part of her, like the feelers of some insects. If you have any little remark to make, you drop it in …

In this wonderful description, Martineau’s prosthesis is a part of her body, but it also extends to her auditor’s body, creating a sympathetic connection between them and allowing him to “drop in” his words. In my talk, I emphasised that these two examples demonstrate the body as extended, dynamic, and indiscrete in ways that are largely positive: both Cytherea’s and Martineau’s “feelers” allow for an intimacy with another body that is marked as either sexually exciting or sympathetic.

Yet after receiving some great questions, I was lead to think a bit more about the surprising language of insects creeping into these passages. Hardy writes that Cytherea’s clothing mimics “[d]elicate antennae, or feelers” and Hawthorne describes Martineau’s ear-trumpet as like “the feelers of some insects.” I’m still puzzling over these associations between women and insects. The insect feelers seem to present the women as susceptible and sensitive, but rather than dehumanizing them (though this is debatable with Hardy), they seem to emphasize another way of sensing and feeling that extends human capabilities. Another, if slightly different, example that comes to mind is from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which was published in 1874 but began serial publication in 1871, the same year as Hardy’s novel. The narrator famously calls the various narratives in the novel a “web,” but also compares gossip to pollen: “News is often dispersed as thoughtlessly and effectively as that pollen which the bees carry off (having no idea how powdery they are) when they are buzzing in search of their particular nectar.” These comparisons to insect life seem to offer both Hardy and Eliot a way to think about human communication and touch in a post-Darwinian world. I’m curious to hear if you have encountered other human-insect comparisons in Victorian (or nineteenth-century American) literature and what they enable writers to say about human interaction and the body.

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5 thoughts on “Victorian Insect Bodies

  1. Excellent post, Tara!! I obviously love the discussion of Desperate Remedies, but I hadn’t actually paid much attention to the insect reference. Lots to think about!! What struck me immediately was the human-insect connection later on the century as the sensational mode of the 1860s persists in the return of the Gothic. I’m thinking especially of Marsh’s The Beetle, which is truly creepy in some of its more insectual (is that a word??) references.

  2. Nice post! I work on Victorian tactility so the ideas you speak to here really resonate with me. I had not thought about the insect angle at all before, so interesting! Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Thanks, Daniel! That’s so nice to hear. And I really like your connection to The Beetle, which I once taught in a course on Sensation and Gothic Fiction. I also loved your post on Desperate Remedies some time ago (and was surprised to see that I never commented on it at the time!). I agree that it’s a fascinating novel, in large part because of the focus on “material media.” Because of your post, when I teach it, I often emphasize that scene when Cytherea arrives and beguiles the townspeople (who are presumably wearing fake teeth and hair!) with her natural elegance.

  4. Tara, belated thanks for a thought-provoking post. Your examples connecting bodies, sensation, and insect metaphors made me think of one of the more famous arachnid metaphors in Victorian fiction, Holmes’s description of Moriarty in “The Final Problem”: “He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of nearly half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, and an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them.”

    I’ve always enjoyed this passage, but am thinking differently about it in light of your comments and insect analogues. As in your examples from Martineau and Hardy, there’s some figural advantage in describing human sensation in non-human terms, and with some material threshold that mediates between the body and external stimulus, whether a dress, and ear-trumpet, or a web. What I find interesting about the web metaphor in this case is its conflation with London itself, which evokes Conan Doyle’s frequent depictions of London as a nexus of information flows.

    Of course, Holmes has his own insect associations later in Conan Doyle’s writing, when he retires to the South Downs to keep bees. The symbolism of bees seems relatively straightforward — they’ve traditionally represented the well-ordered society — but I’m less sure what moral or symbolic associations Victorian readers might see in other kinds of invertebrates, like beetles and spiders. My guess is that you’re on the right track with Victorian science, materialism, and their fascination with the unseen.

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