Sympathy is perhaps the most frequently discussed emotion among scholars working in Victorian literature and culture. Many have argued how important notions of sympathy and later empathy were to the development of nineteenth-century subjects and the novel as a genre. Most of these critics understand sympathy as cognitive, or as a kind of mental feeling. In Scenes of Sympathy, for instance, Audrey Jaffe draws from Adam Smith’s 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments when she explains that “sympathy ‘does away’ with bodies in order to produce representations, replacing persons with mental pictures, generalized images of ease and of suffering” (11). Yet for many Victorian thinkers, sympathy did not ‘do away’ with the body. In fact, in Victorian scientific and philosophical writing, as well as in much literature of the period, sympathy was often understood as an affective response that was deeply physiological and embodied. Henry George Atkinson, writing to Harriet Martineau in their collaborative text Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development in 1851 called sympathies between individuals, “the influences of one organized body upon another” (117-18). If scholars working on nineteenth-century literature have been so invested in notions of sympathy as a cognitive and ultimately ethical response to reading, how might we read literary texts alongside a more embodied and potentially more ambiguous understanding of sympathy?
A recent bout of research on photography and duplicity has led me back to Cambridge’s indomitable Darwin Correspondence Project. This editorial project is an extraordinarily valuable resource for Victorianist researchers, but I’m especially impressed by the compelling points of access the site provides into a mass of information that might otherwise seem quite imposing. I imagine that many curious but casual readers have been drawn in by the site’s weekly blog posts.
One especially intriguing item popped up a couple of weeks ago. It’s an interactive quiz that recreates an experiment Darwin conducted on his own friends and acquaintances. The DCP takes you through a series of Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne’s famous photographs of electrically induced emotions, first collected in his Mechanism of Human Physiognomy (1862), and later included in Darwin’s Expression Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). (Have a look at the photos here.) Continue reading
I’ve just returned to my online search for John Gould’s bird lithographs. I haven’t had any luck, but I have found a copy of Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds – the volume whose letterpress Jane Eyre disliked so much. Assuming that she was reading the first volume of the1847 edition, then we can all go to Google books to give the offending letterpress the once-over.
The online reproduction of British Birds doesn’t quite afford me the affective pleasure that I’m looking for (let me nod to your post from October, Daniel). I think I’d flinch if I handled a physical copy of the edition with which John Reid brained our heroine, but I can’t tell how large or heavy a more material rendering of Google’s reprint would be.
A few of us from the Floating Academy are attending the Northeast Victorian Studies Association conference this weekend at Princeton University. It has been a very enjoyable conference so far and my brain is swimming with lots of new ideas about conflict, debate, and even pugilism (as the topic of the conference is “Fighting Victorians”). Continue reading
As English lecturers, we often have to remind our students to move from emotional to critical readings of texts. I once had a student who had trouble discussing Dickens’s Great Expectations in our tutorials because she hated Pip so much. Despite working to develop a critical voice over the years, I certainly have emotional reading experiences and am pleased that after reading countless Victorian novels, they still make me laugh out loud or cry. The moment in Adam Bede that I find most affective is when Dinah comes to see Hetty in her prison cell and Hetty, after showing no emotion or real awareness of her circumstances, breaks down and embraces Dinah: Continue reading
I have noticed an interesting affective moment that recurs again and again in George Eliot’s fiction. The typical scene involves the struggle of a man to resist his attraction to, and involvement with, a woman he knows he should keep his distance from. Then, despite his good intentions, he witnesses her tears and instantly loses his head in a passionate capitulation to his desire. Continue reading