Preferred Citation: Logan, Peter Melville. Nerves and Narratives: A Cultural History of Hysteria in 19th-Century British Prose. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.

The Story of the Story of the Body

7. The Story of the Story of the Body

Conceiving the Body in Middlemarch

The nervous body, as a medical construct, underwent a significant transformation in medical texts of the early nineteenth century. In this rewriting, the idea of the narrative in the body was multiplied. Whereas the body at the start of the century contained one story, by the mid-Victorian period it encompassed many. Throughout the eighteenth century, the nervous system was thought to have a physically centralized, hierarchical structure. All sensation flowed through the nervous fibers to the brain, or “sensorium.” In The English Malady, George Cheyne described this process by comparing the body to a musical instrument. He likened the nerves to keys sounding in the brain or ropes running from a bell in a steeple to a crowd of people pulling on them (English Malady, 4). This model represented nerves as simple pathways for sensations entering the brain and for motor impulses flowing to the muscles. All bodily authority was thus centralized in a single discrete source. This was the model utilized by the physicians of the Scottish Enlightenment and their disciples, such as Thomas Trotter.

Between 1800 and 1840, this centralized structure yielded to a new structure of dispersed authority.[1] The nervous system ceased to be seen as a simple vehicle for sensations and motor impulses. Instead it became reconceived as a network of localized, semiautonomous centers spread throughout the body. The spinal column was transformed from a large bundle of connecting wires for the brain into a congress of distinct nerve centers, called ganglia, with semiautonomous control over their distinct regions of the body. The brain itself was reimagined as a group of divisible ganglionic units instead of a single, unified authority. The body in effect was thought to comprise many little “brains” dispersed throughout the cerebro-spinal axis, each with a type of regional authority. By 1840 the concept of the brain as the sole, centralized source of authority in the nervous system was dead.

Of the various forms of localized authority, the reflex was considered the most important. Marshall Hall’s early Victorian investigations into reflexive mechanisms provide a significant example of how this multiplicity of narratives became incorporated in the physiology of the body. A leading physiologist of the early nineteenth century, Hall (1790–1857) was a founder of the British Medical Association and the son of a successful manufacturer. In 1833 he published a series of influential papers on the reflex system that formed the basis of his Memoirs of the Nervous System (1837). In it, Hall argues for the presence of two distinct nervous systems in the body, centered separately in the brain and the spine. The “Cerebral, or Sentient and Voluntary, System” is the seat of the intellect and judgment. As its name implies, it is the recipient of all perceived sensation and the source of all willful activity.[2] Unlike the cerebral system, the “True Spinal, or Excito-Motory, System” has “no sensation, no volition, no consciousness, nothing psychical.”[3] This system performs in a wholly mechanistic manner that Hall christens the “reflex arc.” In the spinal system he locates all of the body’s digestive, respiratory, and reproductive functions, thereby replacing the eighteenth-century concept of “sympathy” between bodily organs with the reflex action in the spinal system. In addition, the spinal system is “the seat or nervous agent of the appetites and passions,” controlling facial expressions, blushing, breathing, “and indeed the whole muscular system of the animal frame” (Nervous System, 73). Although reflexes can be manipulated by the volition present in the cerebral system, the spinal system is fundamentally independent of it. The reflex system has its own logic, which does not involve the brain.

Hall’s concept of the reflex arc allows bodies to engage in unwilled forms of action. His many detailed experiments are designed to show that brainless bodies can produce coordinated motions. His fundamental rhetorical project is to convince his audience of the misleading nature of apparently voluntary activity in the body. Through a scientific freak show of encephalic infants, spineless frogs, sexually aroused quadriplegics, and an unfortunate horse he knocks unconscious with a pole ax to see if its eyelid will twitch when he brushes the lash with a feather, he proves again and again that bodies have a second form of action, one that is independent of the subject’s will. Nor are these unwilled actions meaningless. Hall attributes significance to spinal reflexive action, arguing that it embodies the principle of self-preservation in the individual. The spine is also a site for actions designed to promote the preservation of the species as a whole. His separation of action from all mental involvement opens the route for new forms of meaning in the body’s acts and gestures, some of which become redefined as expressions of a primitive ancestry. Hall’s work is thus part of a trend toward creating a body that is capable of containing more than one narrative in its physiology. By constructing a body with two separate nervous systems, he creates a body with two distinct stories, one of voluntary action operating through the brain, and a second of the species’ distant past, operating independently through the spinal system. Although the specifics of Hall’s approach would not survive the end of the nineteenth century, there was no turning back from the general direction he took.[4]

The difference between the two models of the body—that is, between single and multiple narratives—helps to explain why the bodies that appear in Victorian novels function so differently from those of the early century, with which this study is primarily concerned. In the early part of the century, bodies are essentially sincere. Trotter is explicit on this point: “Many external signs correspond with our internal emotions. It is a difficult task, if at all possible, to wear the smile of gladness when the heart is sad. A nervous constitution is ill qualified to disguise its feelings” (NT, 81). In Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story, Miss Milner’s bodily signs are ambiguous, but the novel situates that ambiguity in the clumsy constructions of the interpreter, not in the expression of the subject, which has a definite meaning. The preoccupation with the possibility of dissemblance, embodied in the stock figure of the rake, is itself a consequence of this fundamental sincerity.[5] For it presumes that the body has an essential meaning within it, one that can be dissembled but is nonetheless there. With its centralized authority, the single-narrative model supports a strong relationship between the particular signs of the body and a larger, generalizing totality that they represent.

In the new model, the structure of meaning in the body is diffused. It becomes a group of specific signs without the earlier security of an assumed reference to a central source of significance. Whereas in the early part of the century observers face the problem of misconstruing the body’s truthful signs or of being misled by deliberately false signs, in the new body they face the problem of signs that, although they have meaning, are inherently ambiguous. In one of several antiphysiognomy passages, George Eliot’s narrator in Adam Bede comments on the problematic appearance of Hetty Sorrel: “One begins to suspect at length that there is no direct correlation between eyelashes and moral; or else, that the eyelashes express the disposition of the fair one’s grandmother.”[6]

Hetty’s character cannot be read in her body, yet its attributes are not meaningless or random but “express” instead the character of her ancestry. This disjunction takes place passively, without the sense of willful dissemblance seen in male figures at the beginning of the century. Thus, the earlier anxiety about the ability to dissemble the prior truth hidden within the body’s sensations shifts, in Adam Bede, to a fear of the reverse, that this truth can never not be dissembled: “Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult…even when you have no motive to be false, it is a very hard thing to say the exact truth, even about your own immediate feelings—much harder than to say something fine about them which is not the exact truth” (Adam Bede, 222–23). George Eliot’s bodies are unable to express the truth of their feelings because they no longer know what it is. Sensations, which in Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and Edgeworth have an oppressive clarity, in Eliot are more opaque, or elusive; it requires effort to recover their significance.

These two positions are not simply different sides of the same argument. They indicate two separate epistemologies of the body, one in which signs have a strong connection to a single central meaning, as in Cheyne, and the other in which signs have a weak connection to diffused, multiple meanings, as in Marshall Hall. These two sides suggest a realignment of terms in a larger cultural debate, a move from the question of whether the body’s signs are true or false to the question of whether bodily signs have any meaning at all and, if so, of what sort. This problem in terms of the significance of external bodily signs has an internal correlative, in which the meaning of the body’s sensations to the subject undergoes a similar realignment. In the early period, the questions of middle-class sensibility are whether or not to feel, how much feeling is enough, how much is too much? In the later period, it is less a question of the presence or absence of feeling than of confronting its uncertain significance. With the diffusion of its structure of meaning, the body ceases to function as a centralized reservoir of knowable truth, as it had earlier.

These two models of signification are closely related to the shift that takes place in the representational assumptions of the realist novel.[7] In both the English Jacobin novels of the 1790s and the morally efficacious novels of the Regency, realism is based on the premise that significance resides in an overarching, general design. Discrete, specific details become significant through their ability to reveal this larger order. In this essentially didactic method, realism requires presenting a careful selection of details, leaving out specifics that, although they might be accurate in terms of social experience, tend to mislead or obscure those general principles that constitute the real. In the assumed connections between specific signs and the controlling design, the didactic method resembles the centralized model of the body, in which particular signs are assumed to have a strong connection to a general meaning.

In George Eliot’s writing, the strong connection between sign and meaning of the earlier didactic method is replaced with a programmatically ambiguous connection. We can see this difference even in the essentially descriptive realism of her early novels. “Nature has her language,” explains the narrator of Adam Bede, “and she is not unveracious; but we don’t know all the intricacies of her syntax just yet” (Adam Bede, 198). In this passage, particular details are not devoid of meaning; they retain a connection to a generalized truth that is revealed through them, but the nature of that truth is uncertain to the narrator. George Eliot’s strategy for representing this uncertain reality is thus to jettison the earlier principle of selectivity used by Godwin, Hays, and Edgeworth in favor of a new emphasis on fullness of details, as if realism requires heaping ambiguous sign on top of sign, trusting that meaning will emerge in the accumulation.

George Eliot, more than any other Victorian novelist, was aware of the significant changes taking place in Victorian science, and she knew of the intrinsic redefinition that had taken place in the epistemology of nerves. Because such redefinitions created new ways of imagining the body, they also raised into high relief the changing nature of scientific explanations for what was necessarily conceptualized as the unchanging “real” body.[8] Medicine at any given moment produces an all-encompassing narrative of the body, describing its processes of growth and aging, its daily cycles and monthly rhythms. Each disease, from the onset of symptoms to termination, has its own story, case histories their own plots. Medicine, too, in its historical dimension, creates its own evolving narrative of the body, as its etiologies change and its taxonomies reconfigure. It is in this medical narrative itself, with its inescapable historical relativity, that the authority of medicine to tell the story of the body is most called into question.

In Middlemarch, George Eliot focuses not on the new medical narrative she knew so well but on medical history. Rather than embracing the medical story of the body, Middlemarch represents medicine’s uncertain relationship with bodies as objects of knowledge. Thus, this novel is less concerned with representing the meaning of the body than with representing the problems involved in knowing that meaning. She does this by shifting her focus from the body to the doctor and telling the story of him telling the story of the body.

According to her partner, the philosopher and biologist George Henry Lewes, one remark pleased George Eliot above all other early comments on Middlemarch:[9] It “was like ‘assisting at the creation—a universe formed out of nothing!’ ”[10] The speaker was her real-life surgeon, Sir James Paget, and he was referring to her creation of the fictional surgeon, Tertius Lydgate, one of the novel’s two central protagonists.[11] Paget was astonished at George Eliot’s “surprisingly deep” insights into medical life. He found it amazing that, although “she had never even known a surgeon intimately,” she was able to create the ambitious, scientifically minded Lydgate, a practitioner of 1830, some forty years earlier, whose commitment to professional reform and to the new scientific medicine leads him into a losing conflict with provincial society and the local medical orthodoxy. George Eliot’s pleasure at the remark, we can guess, stemmed in part—but only in part—from Paget’s official endorsement of the lifelike qualities of the portrait, for the principle of historical accuracy combined with richly detailed specificity was a central component of her realistic technique. In preparation for the novel, she had read Pierre Victor Renouard’s Histoire de la Medecine, John Thompson’s Life of William Cullen, Southwood Smith’s Treatise on Fever, J. Rutherford Russell’s History and Heroes of the Art of Medicine, and other works on the history of medicine.[12] But Paget’s astonishment, and George Eliot’s pleasure at it, was not caused by her impressive command of historical detail, which he praised but did not express surprise at.[13]

Instead he was astonished at the wholly speculative nature of her accomplishment. Without actually knowing such a person, she was able to conceive a fictional surgeon who seemed as real to Paget as those that walked abroad. And thus he compared her achievement to “the creation.” As Lewes reports, Paget “could not understand how the author had not had some direct personal experience—it seemed to him that there must have been a biographical foundation for Lydgate’s career.”

George Eliot had reason to be particularly pleased with this response, for it replayed one side of a debate on realism that she stages within Middlemarch. Appropriately, Paget played the part of the fictional surgeon he so admired. Through the particulars of Lydgate’s work, his confrontation with the structure of the human body, and the epistemology of his new scientific medicine, George Eliot delineates her character’s scientific strategy for representing the hidden structures of the human body. Her use of medicine in the novel thus explores a particular brand of realism, one in which the fictional Lydgate, like the science-minded Paget, insists that representation must be firmly tied to empirical experience in order to be truthful. However, George Eliot, who continued to insist on Lydgate’s fictionality long after Paget made his remarks, holds that realistic representation can indeed be unanchored from actual experience.[14] In fact, as we will see, truthfulness for George Eliot depends on an imaginative freedom from immediate experience. The debate, then, centers on the reliability of empiricism and on the need for an escape from the narrowness of sensory experience. Lydgate (as well as his real-life counterpart) resists the idea that representation can be free from experience and thus “formed out of nothing,” whereas from the writer’s point of view it is only when representation is “formed out of nothing” that it stands a chance of becoming realistic.

As a novelist, George Eliot demonstrated a strong bond with the sciences.[15] Not only did she collaborate with Lewes on his writing, she also recognized a deep affinity between science and her own work as a novelist.[16] Thus, her delineation of competing representational strategies in the novel does not reflect a simple opposition between a materialistic “scientific” and a humanistic “literary” way of looking at the world.[17] On the contrary, through the character of Lydgate she describes a necessary role for imagination in science itself and so asserts a fundamental kinship between the projects of literary and scientific realism.

Medical issues in Middlemarch consist of three subjects: scientific research, professional reform, and clinical treatment. Lydgate is at the leading edge of medical research for 1830. He successfully distinguishes between typhus and “typhoid” fever, a hotly debated subject at the time. He studies pathological anatomy in Paris, the specialty that contributed more than any other to the scientific reform of medicine.[18] And he performs his own scientific research and institutes scientific procedures of observation and record-keeping at the New Hospital, which he hopes to turn into a research center for fevers. His education at Edinburgh and Paris, rather than London, further suggests that he has received the best medical training available at a time when the English schools were more interested in turning out gentlemen with broad, classical training than scientific practitioners.[19] The backward state of medical education in England—which Middlemarch describes in chapter 15—was due to the powerful London professional colleges, which controlled the structure and practice of medicine and resisted the introduction of new techniques. Lydgate is a partisan in the historical campaign for professional reform that sought to end the division of medical practice into the three branches of physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries. The campaign grew during the 1820s into an important force within the profession, although the London colleges maintained their division until 1858. Lydgate’s opinions are based on the reformist Thomas Wakley’s editorials for the time in the Lancet, and his decision not to profit from the sale of drugs is particularly topical.[20] However, the new scientific medicine, though it significantly improved diagnosis, did not generate effective therapies until much later in the nineteenth century, and Lydgate’s cases demonstrate this. He can recognize typhoid fever in Fred Vincy, for example, but without antibiotics he can do little actively to cure it. The public gives him credit for Vincy’s recovery, but Lydgate himself is uncomfortable with the “trash talked on such occasions” (M, 45:440).[21] His superiority as a practitioner is that he abstains from poisoning patients with unnecessary drugs or weakening them through a ritualistic practice of venesection. Lydgate practices a form of therapeutic nihilism, relying mainly on bed rest, dietary control, and close observation. Because he assists rather than hinders the healing process, he is presented as a more effective practitioner than his rivals.

Scientific research and its insights into the body most clearly distinguish Lydgate’s medicine from the heroic practice of the provincial medical men in the novel. Lydgate is interested in what is unseen, in hidden mechanisms and physical laws; he seeks a firm basis of knowledge on which to act. The older medicine concentrates on appearance, on visual, readily perceived surfaces. They practice a client-based form of treatment, catering to the whims of their often hypochondriacal patients.[22] Their medicine has an exaggerated, theatrical quality that appeals to patients. The old practitioners engage in the broad gestures of treatment, as though playing to the balconies and trying to compensate in appearance for what is lacking in substance. To the patients, those gestures are all-important. The patients of Toller, a popular surgeon-apothecary, for example, “commonly observed that Mr. Toller had lazy manners, but his treatment was as active as you could desire:—no man, said they, carried more seriousness into his profession: he was a little slow in coming, but when he came, he did something” (M, 45:438; italics original).

Stressed is the simple, reductive quality of action itself. He acted, “did something,” something that is left undefined because it is insignificant except as a gesture. His laziness suggests an indifference to the outcome; he is “slow in coming” and thus either disinterested in the sufferer’s illness or unconvinced of his own ability to ameliorate it. This implication is lost on the naive patient, who is more concerned with the dramatic surface of the “heroic” treatment than with its substance. All that matters is the degree of apparent activity, that treatment be “as active as you could desire”—that is, that it be clearly seen or felt. Patients admire the tangible, visible procedures, the “bleeding and blistering and starving,” for which Toller is particularly known (M, 45:438). The same emphasis on visibility can be seen in the leading therapeutic, prescribed compounds. Their effectiveness, or substantive quality, is clearly subordinated to their mere tangibility. The narrator points out that “since professional practice chiefly consisted in giving a great many drugs, the public inferred that it might be better off with more drugs still, if they could only be got cheaply, and hence swallowed large cubic measures of physic” (M, 15:143). Undifferentiated quantity is the notable factor about these drugs, the “large cubic measure,” without regard to their substantive qualities or effects. When Mrs. Mawmsey declares, “what keeps me up best is the pink mixture, not the brown” (M, 45:437), her attention is focused on the colorful aesthetic surface of the compound, suggesting an ignorance of its deeper characteristics. Such drugs, like the highly visible procedures of bleeding and blistering, are apparent enough in their form (though not in their effects) to constitute “active” treatment—that is, something worth paying for.

Ultimately the older medicine, with its emphasis on what is visible or tangible, on the drama of treatment, on the color and bulk of physic, is less grounded in the mechanism of the individual physical body than in the subjective and unreliable experience of the patient. Hence, George Eliot’s descriptions of the older medical work focus more on the public perception of it and its practitioners than on the caricatured men themselves or their theories of treatment. As the narrator explains:

For everybody’s family doctor was remarkably clever, and was understood to have immeasurable skill in the management and training of the most skittish or vicious diseases. The evidence of his cleverness was of the higher intuitive order, lying in his lady-patients’ immovable conviction, and was unassailable by any objection except that their intuitions were opposed by others equally strong; each lady who saw medical truth in Wrench and “the strengthening treatment” regarding Toller and “the lowering system” as medical perdition.

She claims not that the doctors have “immeasurable skill,” only that they are “understood” to have it; her claim that “everybody’s” doctor is “remarkably clever” is a commentary on “everybody’s” judgment, not on the doctors themselves. She directly describes the perception of medical practice, concentrating on its visible surface and on the public response to that surface. And people’s naive perceptions, which misappropriate the work of nature to the skill of the physician, are noticeably free from any connection to the reality that the treatment is at best ineffective.

Thus, in the older, client-based medicine, the doctor’s practice lives and dies in the breath of popular opinion, for when effectiveness is illusory, a practitioner’s “management and treatment” of his reputation is a more substantial part of his work than the management of disease. The unsolicited advice of Rosamond to Lydgate for reviving his failing practice—“It cannot answer to be eccentric; you should think what will be generally liked” (M, 64:637)—merely reflects the social context for medical practice in Middlemarch. At the same time, although it cannot be ignored, public opinion is notoriously inaccurate. Describing the various reactions to the new doctor in town, the narrator points out: “For surely all must admit that a man may be puffed and belauded, envied, ridiculed, counted upon as a tool and fallen in love with, or at least selected as a future husband, and yet remain virtually unknown—known merely as a cluster of signs for his neighbors’ false suppositions” (M, 15:139). Reputation thus is a distorted product of the public’s mind, not a reflection of deeper qualities within the object itself. It is within these fickle waters of social prejudice that the older medicine swims. This narrative emphasis on the falsity of public opinion and on the lack of correspondence between popular belief and reality suggests that the older medicine is Sir James Paget’s worst nightmare, for it floats, free of any material referent, in the fancy of its patients. Instead of medicine as science, the older practitioners perform medicine as theater.

Whereas the older practitioners can only gesture wildly over the body’s surface, Lydgate is able to penetrate that surface and perceive the “finely-adjusted mechanism in the human frame” (M, 15:141).[23] Underscoring this difference is the fact that he corrects the mistakes of the other practitioners: He correctly diagnoses typhoid fever in Fred Vincy after the surgeon Wrench sends “just the wrong medicines” (M, 26:255), and he sees in the charwoman Nancy Nash a cramp that Dr. Minchin has mistakenly perceived as a tumor (M, 45:441).[24] The older practitioners equate Lydgate’s medicine with charlatanism precisely because it dives beneath that visible surface, leading to new forms of treatment.[25] The surgeon Wrench, for example, denounces Lydgate’s “flighty, foreign notions” and calls his new treatments “worthy only of a quack.” “That cant about cures,” he concludes, “was never got up by sound practitioners” (M, 26:257). Toller clarifies the definition of charlatanism at work among the provincial practitioners when one of his simpleminded patients recollects a wonder worker who, she believes, was a charlatan like Lydgate:

“There are so many of that sort. I remember Mr. Cheshire, with his irons, trying to make people straight when the Almighty had made them crooked.”

“No, no,” said Mr. Toller, “Cheshire was all right—all fair and above board.”

Indeed Cheshire’s treatment is literally “above board,” consisting entirely of observable surface activity, and it is for this reason, and this reason alone, that it is “all right.” The true charlatan, Toller explains, advertises “cures in ways nobody knows anything about: a fellow who wants to make a noise by pretending to go deeper than other people.” Because it literally goes “deeper,” Lydgate’s medicine epitomizes “the essence of the charlatan” in the eyes of the older practitioners (M, 45:446).

Lydgate’s ability to “go deeper,” to penetrate the sentient body’s surface, can be divided into two categories. The first includes various forms of sensory penetration, such as listening through a stethoscope. Second, by means of a specifically imaginative penetration, Lydgate draws on his conceptual understanding of the body to infer its interior condition. Each of these forms of penetration, sensory and imaginative, needs to be considered separately.

Although the senses are barred from the interior of another’s body by its surface, Lydgate is able to “see” further into the body’s interior than others by extending the range of these senses with the recently improved microscope and newly invented stethoscope and thermometer.[26] His attendance on Borthrop Trumbull, for example, consists wholly of sensory penetration; he monitors Trumbull’s body, and it becomes “a beautiful example of a disease with all its phases seen in clear delineation” (M, 45:443). The body “furnished objects for the microscope,” which gives Trumbull a sense of “the dignity of his secretions,” as they are transformed by Lydgate into scientific evidence of the body’s interior state.

Each of these forms of sensory penetration, though challenging the body’s physical boundary, nonetheless leaves it intact. The sounds Lydgate hears with his stethoscope, though originating in the interior, are heard at the surface of the skin; the “secretions” are, by definition, already part of the exterior world at the moment they are secreted. Thus, although calling these procedures a form of penetration, in fact each of them respects the material integrity of the body’s shell. Each is a mediated form of reaching into the body, so that Lydgate is inevitably stationed at one remove from the interior.

The shell of the body preserves its biological life by keeping the interior hidden, inaccessible and safe from the external world. In Middlemarch, the sentient body cannot be physically opened without destroying the life that resides inside it. Although the modern context of safe, effective surgery makes it difficult to imagine the skin as an impassable boundary, this was still the reigning view in George Eliot’s time. Anesthesia was not introduced until 1846, fifteen years after the novel’s historical setting, when Eliot was in her late twenties. By 1870 it was still rudimentary, commonly consisting of chloroform on a rag. Though anesthesia greatly increased the use of some surgical procedures at mid-century, the unsolved danger of septic infection meant that open surgery—“cutting” operations in which the protective skin is broken—remained a course of last resort.[27] It was not until 1872, the same year Middlemarch was published, that Joseph Lister introduced the use of carbolic acid spray to produce an aseptic operating field. His ideas, however, were embroiled in the controversy over Pasteur’s germ theory, on which they depended, and it was 1886 before the more advanced German surgeons, who accepted Pasteur’s theory, began the antiseptic procedures of washing their hands and sterilizing their instruments. During World War I, aseptic procedures finally met with widespread acceptance. But during George Eliot’s lifetime, open surgery was a perilous procedure, and the skin constituted a significantly more impermeable boundary than it does today. By looking at the two separate instances in the text—each crucial in Lydgate’s development—where the boundary of the body is physically pierced, the impassability of the sentient body’s surface, and the paradox it poses for scientific medicine, can be more clearly seen.

Lydgate’s love of medicine begins “under the head of Anatomy” when, as a boy, he discovers the passage in the Cyclopaedia on “the valves of the heart” (M, 15:141).[28] The two major medical figures in Lydgate’s personal hierarchy, his “patron saints,” are Vesalius and Bichat, both important anatomists (M, 45:448).[29] But even though anatomy penetrates the surface of the body, a corpse can only indirectly represent the sentient body. Between the two lies a temporal boundary that parallels the impassable spatial boundary of the skin and keeps the practitioner, again, at one remove from the processes of the sentient body. Popular objections to Lydgate’s practice of pathology are rooted in the idea that he allows patients to die so that he can open the body when it is as temporally close to life as possible. The vociferous landlady of the Tankard, Mrs. Dollop, suggests that he does not quite wait for the patient’s death; she refers to him as “this Dr Lydgate that’s been for cutting up everybody before the breath was well out o’ their body” (M, 71:712).[30] Certainly erroneous as a statement of fact, her observation nonetheless possesses an ironic truth (as does much of Middlemarch gossip). Because Lydgate’s object of interest is not the corpse but the still breathing body which it imperfectly represents, he is in fact trying to look inside the living body.[31] That he cannot is a testament to the physically impassable nature of the sentient body’s boundary at that stage in medical history.

Yet in one crucial instance the novel does indeed represent the physical penetration of the living body. This unique image is carefully bracketed at several removes from the ongoing action of the story. It takes place in the past, far away in another country, framed as the action of a play. The story of Lydgate’s first romance, in Paris with Laure, is itself a digression from the main action in Middlemarch, and the story of the play is a digression within the digression. Further attention is drawn to this elaborate framework (if any were needed) by the introduction to the chapter in which it occurs; the narrator distinguishes her concise narrative project from the “copious remarks and digressions” of her predecessor, Henry Fielding. “All the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed,” she says (M, 15:139). The doubly digressive nature of the episode of Laure thus indicates its importance, for the narrator must make a major effort to weave this distant event into her purposeful “web.”

Laure is “the actress whose part it was to stab her lover” (M, 15:148). Nightly assuming her role in the melodrama, Laure on stage is an emblem of penetration to which Lydgate repeatedly returns. Thus, the young student’s first experience with love is coupled with the image of opening the boundary of the skin. As a young medical student pursuing anatomical studies at the Paris school, Lydgate also experiments with animal bodies, subjecting “frogs and rabbits” to galvanic shocks, experiments that are “over and above his other work.”[32] He works at a grueling pace and some nights becomes frustrated. “Tired with his experimenting, and not being able to elicit the facts he needed” from the intellectually impenetrable bodies of his animal subjects, he returns again and again to Laure and her representation of direct penetration. This idealized image of the woman who succeeds where he fails rejuvenates his flagging spirits. As we are told, the interlude is “without prejudice to his galvanism, to which he would presently return.” Thus the play has a beneficial effect on Lydgate, for it rekindles his enthusiasm, inspiring him to continue in his scientific pursuit. But the image remains positive only as long as it remains idealized—that is, as long as Laure remains “a woman with whom he never expects to speak.” As will be considered later, this restorative dynamic reverses after the old drama’s “new catastrophe,” in which Laure “veritably stabbed her husband.” Laure’s motives are famously enigmatic.[33] But Lydgate’s response is quickly summarized. He falls immediately in love with the actress and, in the pandemonium at the theatre, rushes to the stage, takes her in his arms, and begins a lone crusade to defend her against charges of murder. This personal obsession temporarily destroys his medical studies.

In the story of Lydgate’s love for the actress, then, the penetration of the body benefits Lydgate’s science as long as it remains idealized. But, as in the practice of anatomy, at the moment it becomes real the work of science ceases and the question of murder emerges. In both cases, the boundary of the skin cannot be physically crossed without transforming the object of study, the sentient body, into an insentient corpse. By definition, then, the skin of the sentient body must remain inviolate, for once it is broached the body loses its sentience. This categorical impermeability poses the central epistemological problem for Lydgate’s scientific medicine. The interior of the living body, by its very nature, is necessarily hidden. The body’s life—which is the source of the body’s meaning to the physician, who seeks to preserve it—depends absolutely upon the boundary’s integrity. But, paradoxically, that same boundary prevents the physician from knowing that meaning, for the skin bars him from access to the body’s interior, where its meaning resides. Thus, although the work of medicine requires the penetration of the body’s surface, the goal of medicine is to preserve the very surface that prevents this penetration.[34]

Because of this paradox, the most significant aspect of Lydgate’s penetration of the body is imaginative rather than sensory. The impassable physical boundary that intervenes between the medical laborer and the object of his labor determines that medicine will be primarily a “labour of the imagination” (M, 16:161), for the object of work can never be directly reached nor directly observed. Lydgate’s “daily work,” George Eliot writes, consists of “careful observation and inference” (M, 15:144). His essential task is the “observation” of the surface, which leads to his “inference” about the interior. Because that interior is inaccessible, he correlates the surface signs with an imagined interior. The interior is the “living structure” that he seeks to represent with his “anatomical conception” (M, 15:146, 144). Thus, his intellectual penetration, his “insight” into the hidden interior, depends upon that profoundly creative act of conceptualization. He describes this act as “the imagination that reveals subtle actions inaccessible by any sort of lens, but tracked in that outer darkness through long pathways of necessary sequence by the inward light which is the last refinement of Energy, capable of bathing even the ethereal atoms in its ideally illuminated space” (M, 16:161–62). Through this use of the imagination he hopes “to pierce the obscurity of those minute processes” that lay hidden in the body and thus to create his image of its living interior.

This argument on the central role of imagination in the scientific project was not original to George Eliot. It was shared within the scientific circle to which she and Lewes belonged.[35] Among her favorite visitors at the Priory was the physicist John Tyndall, a respected scientist and popular lecturer, whose ideas Lydgate embodies.[36] Tyndall’s 1870 lecture, “Scientific Use of the Imagination,” asks: “How, for example, are we to lay hold of the physical basis of light, since, like that of life itself, it lies entirely without the domain of the senses?…We are gifted with the power of Imagination…and by this power we can lighten the darkness which surrounds the world of the senses.”[37] The new tools, such as the microscope, that extend the range of the senses present a dilemma for the empiricist. For as they reveal a new world to the observer, and thereby prove the fallibility of the unaided senses, so too they suggest the unseen presence of more minute structures. Hence, Tyndall notes, “beyond the present outposts of microscopic enquiry lies an immense field for the exercise of the speculative power” because the material world possesses “infinite permutations and combinations” (Imagination in Science, 40–41). It is only through such imaginative activities as hypothesizing that one can hope to comprehend the mechanisms for the transmission of light and sound. Thus, for Tyndall imagination is an essential element of scientific inquiry, for it takes the scientist “behind the drop-scene of the senses” (Imagination in Science, 15). In Tyndall, the “real” becomes located in this extra-sensible universe of atomic structure, and so the imagination becomes the essential tool for perceiving reality.[38]

Lydgate’s research is thus primarily a representational project, one in which he works to construct a model of the body’s unseen interior. The representational nature of this project has invited frequent comparison with the author’s own representational project. In a famous passage, George Eliot’s narrator comments on that project and on the difficulty of penetrating a different sort of barrier to perceive the material world beyond, and in it Lydgate’s representational problems reappear:[39]

[W]e do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.

The narrator characterizes the external world as a world of excess meaning; there are simply too many facts, all with their own significance, to comprehend. The human subject defends against this life-threatening “roar” of unlimited meaning by perceptual “stupidity,” by an absence of “keen vision and feeling.” She reiterates Wordsworth’s complaint against overstimulation, reducing one’s sensitivity to a state of mental torpor.[40] But instead of limiting the complaint to the hurried pace of urban life, she uses the inescapable, sheer presence of an external world to account for the same insensibility. Silence in this passage is thus a perceptual threshold that protects the subject from the overwhelming presence of the external world (represented here in terms of sound, but impinging equally on all the senses).[41] This threshold of perceptual “stupidity,” like the body’s skin, separates the human subject from the excess of meaning in the material world. It becomes a metaphorical extension of the skin, protecting the life that resides “inside” from the threat that exists “outside.” Lydgate seeks to penetrate the skin to understand better the unknown yet real structure of the body; similarly, George Eliot’s narrator recognizes the presence of a perceptual threshold intervening between herself and an equally unknown yet real external world. As Lydgate finds a hidden realm of signification in the body’s interior, so too the narrator sees a veiled significance in ordinary life. What unites these two views is the assertion of a threshold for the empirical powers of the observer beyond which significance resides.

It becomes, then, the task of the realistic novelist to penetrate this empirical boundary, much as the scientist must penetrate the skin. The duty of the novelist, in George Eliot’s view, is specifically to overcome this perceptual “stupidity” and to represent for others the existence of those ordinary, unnoticed tragedies as a means of furthering the understanding between individuals and social classes.[42] “The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies,” she wrote at the beginning of her novelistic career.[43] “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellowmen beyond the bounds of our personal lot” (Essays, 271). The realistic artist must thus penetrate the drop-scene of the senses in order to expand the phenomenon of sympathy within society. This social responsibility places severe demands on the truthfulness of the writer’s representation of everyday experience. Misrepresentation, she claims, is “a grave evil” in the realistic novel because it claims to represent “people as they are” (Essays, 270). The sympathy of the believing reader becomes “perverted, and turned towards a false object instead of a true one…. We want to be taught to feel, not for the heroic artisan or the sentimental peasant, but for the peasant in all his coarse apathy, and the artisan in all his suspicious selfishness” (Essays, 271). To avoid this danger, the novelist must become in a very real sense a scientist. Forgoing customary ideas or sentimental doctrines, the writer must study the social body with the same sort of direct observation and attention to detail that Lydgate practices on the physical body. “[A] real knowledge of the People” is needed to “guide our sympathies rightly,” and this knowledge requires “a thorough study of their habits, their ideas, their motives” (Essays, 272). George Eliot sees this immersion in the concrete, particular details of everyday experience as a corrective to the tendency to interpret the real through the lens of generalized theories or systems of thought. Early influenced by Comtian positivism, she decries the vitiating effects of à priori knowledge and stresses reliance on gradually amassed observations.[44] “The abstract is derived from the concrete,” she held, rather than the reverse (Essays, 150).[45] She calls this form of intimate social study the natural history of social bodies, and her description of what such a science would look like bears a close resemblance to her own novels:[46]

If any man of sufficient moral and intellectual breadth, whose observations would not be vitiated by a foregone conclusion, or by a professional point of view, would devote himself to studying the natural history of our social classes, especially of the small shopkeepers, artisans, and peasantry,—the degree in which they are influenced by local conditions, their maxims and habits, the points of view from which they regard their religious teachers, and the degree in which they are influenced by religious doctrines, the interaction of the various classes on each other, and what are the tendencies in their position towards disintegration or towards development,—and if, after all this study, he would give us the result of his observations in a book well nourished with specific facts, his work would be a valuable aid to the social and political reformer.

In the attention to detailed observation and the avoidance of prior systematized beliefs, in the attempt to improve society by representing its hidden processes, the project of the realistic novelist resembles that of the Victorian scientist.[47]

George Eliot’s later ideas about realism were deeply influenced by Matthew Arnold’s concept of the role of culture and the problem of expanding social sympathy.[48] Her notion of a perceptual threshold—the “drop-scene of the senses”—is closely related to Arnold’s idea of the “ordinary self .”[49] The primary restraint, as Arnold sees it, on the development of social sympathy is the tyranny of self-interest. The actions of individuals and social classes are determined by their material self-interests; there is no recognition of the needs of other classes or competing individuals. The “ordinary self” perceives the world in terms of its limited, day-to-day experience, mistaking this narrow and distorted vision for the larger social reality. The expansion of social sympathy depends on the development, in the individual, of an altruistic identity that can see beyond the threshold of the individual’s social experience. In their “best self,” individuals can escape the self-interests of their class, parochial interests that blind them to the common good. Thus, for Arnold, the perceptions of the “ordinary self” are bounded by a form of social relativism, whereas the “best self” penetrates the blindness of daily experience and perceives the larger set of social relations that constitutes reality.

George Eliot transcribes Arnold’s vision of culture note for note in her handling of Lydgate’s science. The ordinary self is above all the individual as determined by empirical experience and operating on the partial information available to the senses. It sees the surface of the body or admires the drama of treatment but never understands the natural laws at work. It is because Lydgate, unlike the older practitioners, is able to transcend these empirical limits, through Tyndall’s scientific imagination, that he resembles the Arnoldian intellectual, escaping the distortion of immediate experience to recognize the real presence of a deeper set of unapparent relations.

His outsider status further marks him as a representative of Arnoldian culture. Lydgate comes to Middlemarch to avoid being hampered in his scientific research by the London professional colleges that represent, in the very worst sense, the pursuit of narrow self-interest at the expense of the larger social good. Thus, Lydgate asserts his independence from the social determinants of the “ordinary,” and this independence is the necessary condition for the unimpeded pursuit of knowledge. Similarly, he resolves to stay disengaged from all provincial entanglements, political, social, or otherwise. His independence marks him as one of Arnold’s cultural intellectuals, and it points to the central element of Arnold’s thought. For “objective” thought depends on independence. In order to represent a social group, either politically or as an intellectual object of study, the individual cannot belong to the group but must be what Arnold terms an “alien.” Thus, Lydgate’s disinterestedness and aloofness are an attempt to keep his research uncontaminated by the social and material determinants that make up Arnold’s “ordinary self.”

Although George Eliot recognized a strong kinship between aesthetic and scientific realism, her medical protagonist anxiously avoids any such connection. Lydgate, like Sir James Paget, wants his science to be more “real” than “fictional,” and this anxiety about the representational status of his work leads him to disassociate himself, both in his personal tastes and in his research, from artistry. Thus, he introduces his encomium on the scientific imagination with a harsh denigration of aesthetic creativity: “Many men have been praised as vividly imaginative on the strength of their profuseness in indifferent drawing or cheap narration” (M, 16:161). Lydgate seems to use Paradise Lost as an example of “cheap inventions where ignorance finds itself able and at ease.” He rejects aesthetic representation in general as an excessive or inaccurate portrayal of the real, one that seems “to reflect life in a diseased dream.” He does not restrict his objection to what George Eliot classed as “bad” art, such as the hackneyed sentimentality of the Keepsake album that Rosamond Vincy and her suitor read.[50] Instead, as he admits to Rosamond, Lydgate has simply given up on the whole puerile business of aesthetic representation: “Oh, I read no literature now…. I read so much when I was a lad, that I suppose it will last me all my life” (M, 27:265). Behind this disdain for artistic creativity lies a denial of his own immersion in fictionality, a denial that his reliance on the “labour of the imagination” has anything in common with aesthetic representation (M, 16:161). That is, he tries to place science essentially outside of representation, outside the arbitrariness of language, and thus to deny that his imaginative reaching beyond the boundary of empiricism has any hermeneutic difficulties. Rather than an exposition on George Eliot’s own self-conscious practice of realism, Lydgate’s science is a case study in the limitations and dangers of naive realism—that is, of representation that denies its own status as representation.[51]

Lydgate’s naive stance is not limited to his medical labors. The man who determines to “take a strictly scientific view of woman” does not confine his denial of the problematics of scientific representation to scientific research (M, 15:151). It is a global part of his personality, as he generally insists on a strong correspondence between sign and meaning. This can be seen in his contempt for the disingenuous posturing of politicians, in his dislike of wealthy patients who expect him to feign respect and “listen more deferentially to nonsense” (M, 31:287), and in his general disdain for the hollow forms of conventionality. In each case, Lydgate expects that what people say, do, or otherwise signify will accurately reflect what they mean. Because he dislikes slippage between signifier and signified, he declines to participate even in innocent forms of activity involving dissemblance, such as the after-dinner games at the Vincy’s house. As the narrator succinctly explains, “Lydgate was no Puritan, but he did not care for play” (M, 18:174). Similarly, he wants to succeed based on the substantive merits of his own work, on what he perceives as its meaning and value, rather than on supposedly superficial characteristics, such as the network of friendship and political alliance that characterizes the existing system of medical patronage. “[H]e would keep away from the range of London intrigues, jealousies, and social truckling, and win celebrity, however slowly, as Jenner had done, by the independent value of his work” (M, 15:143). Indeed, his support of professional reform in medicine, of stricter licensing requirements and the transformation of the profession into a meritocracy, is an insistence on stricter correspondence between title and training, signifier and signified, so that there is a greater stability of meaning within the profession itself.[52]

Middlemarch provides no clearer answer to Lydgate’s naive representational assumptions than his infatuation with Rosamond Vincy. She perfectly epitomizes the disjunction between sign and signification that Lydgate refuses to acknowledge. In judging her inner character, he employs his “scientific view of woman,” reading her bodily signs much as he reads the bodies of his patients. He operates on precisely the same assumption of a strong, one-to-one correspondence between representation and meaning when he argues that her physical mannerisms and poise—her bodily signs—adequately convey the truth about her identity: “Miss Vincy…had just the kind of intelligence one would desire in a woman—polished, refined, docile, lending itself to finish in all the delicacies of life, and enshrined in a body which expressed this with a force of demonstration that excluded the need for other evidence” (M, 16:161). Lydgate draws his conclusions from the evidence, ignoring the possibility that this sentient body is less legible than he assumes. And this assumption that her body is sincere, that her character is unmistakably “enshrined in” and “expressed” by her appearance, is his central error. With her practiced manners, self-serving deceptions, and intractable will, Rosamond is the perfect foil to Lydgate’s underestimation of the problems of representation: “Every nerve and muscle in Rosamond was adjusted to the consciousness that she was being looked at. She was by nature an actress of parts that entered into her physique: she even acted her own character, and so well, that she did not know it to be precisely her own” (M, 12:114).

In direct contradiction to Lydgate’s view, her body enshrines idealized roles, not a fixed identity. The most notable aspect of her character is in fact the absence of any fixed meaning; “she did not know” her own character but “acted” it, inseparable in her mind from her varied roles. She is a dreamer who resides perpetually in the “thoughtwoven ‘might-be’ such as she was in the habit of opposing to the actual” (M, 12:115). With no identity outside of the imaginary and so “by nature an actress,” Rosamond stands for a weak correspondence between sign and meaning. The marriage between her and Lydgate thus unites the problematics of pure representation with the naive realism of the scientist who will not acknowledge its existence. Because of her character’s limitations, she is an unlikely and even an objectionable heroine. Yet by defeating Lydgate’s simplistic determination to “take a strictly scientific view of woman,” she becomes a heroine nonetheless.[53]

Lydgate’s effectiveness as a practitioner—or at least the greater accuracy of his diagnosis—seems to justify his faith in the referentiality of scientific language, as opposed to the nonreferentiality of aesthetic representation. But his new scientific ideas raise the very problem of referentiality he tries to erase. Lydgate’s concept of the body comes from that of his hero, Bichat, the Romantic-era surgeon, physiologist, and anatomist who died at the age of thirty-one.[54] Bichat’s new conception of the body, Lydgate cautions, “must be taken into account in considering the symptoms of maladies and the action of medicaments” (M, 15:145). Whereas Lydgate’s rivals are still “shambling along the old paths,” viewing the physical body in the old way, Lydgate follows Bichat’s new physiological concept, one that describes a body different from any previously seen: “That great Frenchman first carried out the conception that living bodies, fundamentally considered, are not associations of organs which can be understood by studying them first apart, and then as it were federally; but must be regarded as consisting of certain primary webs or tissues, out of which the various organs—brain, heart, lungs, and so on—are compacted, as the various accommodations of a house are built up in various proportions of wood, iron, stone, brick, zinc, and the rest” (M, 15:145–46).

George Eliot’s repeated use of the word “conception” in connection with Bichat’s idea is carefully chosen. It suggests that Bichat has given birth to a new body, one that consists of “primary webs or tissues” and thus differs fundamentally from the old body of “associations of organs.” This new body seems not merely verified but actually reified by Lydgate’s success, as though the “conception wrought out by Bichat,” to use George Eliot’s remarkable phrase, were the imagination made flesh. The idea has not only been “conceived” but “wrought” as well, and by this double language of reproduction and production, George Eliot stresses the absolute materiality of Bichat’s intellectual construction. In this vision of science, the one-to-one relationship between idea and thing becomes so absolute that ideas seem even to slip over the line from representations to constructions, remaking their referents in their own image, so that the imagined body gives rise to the material body and not the reverse.

Yet the apparent referentiality of Bichat’s conception raises the very problem of referentiality that Lydgate wants to deny.[55] Because it gives rise to a “new” body and asserts that the “old” body was a misrepresentation, Bichat’s idea implies a disjunction between the shifting, historically relative nature of medical concepts and their unchanging referent in the material world. As Will Ladislaw explains elsewhere in the novel, “new discoveries are constantly making new points of view” (M, 22:217), and this continual reconceptualization emphasizes the distance between idea and referent about which Lydgate is so anxious. [56] Lydgate’s dedication to discovering a new “anatomical conception” exacerbates the problem, for his revision of Bichat’s theory suggests yet another sequence of new bodies defined by their increasingly minute structural units: “This great seer did not go beyond the consideration of the tissues as ultimate facts in the living organism, marking the limit of anatomical analysis; but it was open to another mind to say, have not these structures some common basis from which they have all started, as your sarsnet, gauze, net, satin and velvet from the raw cocoon? Here would be another light, as of oxy-hydrogen, showing the very grain of things, and revising all former explanations” (M, 15:146).

Lydgate’s proposed revision mirrors Bichat’s; his textiles (gauze, satin, velvet) mimic Bichat’s building materials (wood, iron, stone). But in the progression between the two schemes, the originary structure of the body is pushed back—from organ to Bichat’s “primary tissue” to Lydgate’s “primitive tissue”—and each explanation creates a new image of the body, overturning “all former explanations.” As Lydgate’s science continually uncovers new horizons of knowledge, the stable significance of the body remains a distant goal, always chased and always receding into more minute units, creating an endless proliferation of meaning. The sequence suggests an inescapable disjunction between the conceptualized body and the infinitely complex material body it seeks to represent. His “conception” is not, in fact, the word made flesh but the word endlessly seeking to represent the flesh, whereas the flesh always exceeds its representation in the word. The body is not merely unknown in Middlemarch but unknowable as well.

Lydgate’s strong correlation of facts with significance is an attempt to tame the excesses of fancy with the principle of scientific verifiability. Like Sir James Paget, he insists that ideas have a “foundation.” For Lydgate, scientific representation differs from aesthetic because it is “not mere arbitrariness, but the exercise of disciplined power”—that is, it is rooted in empirical verification, which brings scientific representations into “more and more exactness of relation” (M, 16:161–62). In this, Lydgate again reproduces the arguments of the eloquent scientist John Tyndall. Tyndall reassured those “tories in science” who were afraid of the arbitrariness of the imagination that verification could elevate imaginative concepts to the same degree of certainty as empirical evidence:

[If a concept] has actually forced upon our attention phenomena which no eye had previously seen, and which no mind had previously imagined, such a conception, which never disappoints us, but always lands us on the solid shores of fact, must, we think, be something more than a mere figment of the scientific fancy. In forming it that composite and creative unity in which reason and imagination are together blent, has, we believe, led us into a world not less real than that of the senses, and of which the world of sense itself is the suggestion and justification.

However, in George Eliot’s view, relying on the senses to establish the referentiality of ideas has, as we have seen, significant difficulties. For it reintroduces the same problematic misperception that characterizes the day-to-day experience of the “ordinary self.” It thus complicates the original question of referentiality without completely eliminating it. Because the realist’s project is to escape from the relativism of social experience and see behind the “drop-scene of the senses,” Tyndall’s attempt to elevate representation to the level of empiricism—by turning it into “a world not less real than that of the senses”—also has the opposite effect. It recontains the truer perception of the “best self” within the relativistic framework of the “ordinary self.” Similarly, Lydgate’s denial of the fundamentally representational nature of his work, although intended as a reinforcement of his work’s claim to referentiality, carries with it a danger of entrapment within the narrow relativism that characterizes day-to-day experience.

George Eliot’s treatment of Lydgate suggests that, by trying to ignore the hermeneutic problems of realism, he becomes their prisoner. The scientist who, in the desire to avoid the contamination of fictionality and to strengthen science’s claim to referentiality, denies the representational nature of science loses sight of the essentially fictional condition of science, thereby becoming less objective than ever. Instead of acknowledging the contingent nature of scientific knowledge, such a scientist becomes an unwitting participant in a representational project that is no longer recognized as representation. By seeking to distance itself from imagination, science becomes increasingly blinded by an excessive faith in its own idealized concept of the material and thus, ironically, grows more distant from the referentiality it claims to possess.

George Eliot illustrates the mechanics of precisely this problem in the conclusion of that distant but crucial narrative about Laure, the emblematic actress who represents, as we have seen, the penetration through the empirical boundary to the realm of significance beyond. As long as Lydgate recognizes the representational nature of the act, his science proceeds admirably. But when Laure “veritably stabbed her husband” on stage (M, 15:148), the necessary distinction between representation and reality dissolves. What was first purely a representation suddenly becomes real. But what is real—or, more to the point, what is now seen to be real—takes place on a stage, so that the real and the represented become intractably confused. The immediate consequence of this conflation is that the orderly distinction between observer and observed is erased as illustrated when Laure’s audience rushes onto the stage. The scientist who denies the representational status of science and believes in its direct referentiality behaves as Lydgate does, leaving his distant seat in the audience (“he hardly knew how”) to embrace his emblem of penetration. But he does so only by placing himself on stage. The observer thus becomes an actor in a representation that is no longer recognized as representation. The consequence for Lydgate is straightforward: “all science” we are told, “had come to a standstill” (M, 15:150). The subsequent affair with Laure is characterized by the total loss of objectivity that leads Lydgate, and Lydgate alone, to maintain her innocence. His response afterward, the naive and persistent belief that now “illusions were at an end for him,” that as a result he “had more reason than ever for trusting his judgment, now that it was so experienced” (M, 15:151), further suggests an ongoing and deeply pervasive self-deception about his own ability to be objective.

Despite his claims to a disinterested science, Lydgate is unable to rise above the social determinants that make up the “ordinary” self. By placing him and his research in a remarkably specific, historically conditioned environment, George Eliot historicizes him, making the social context a member of the dramatis personae, influencing the direction and progress his research takes. His research is influenced by a vast array of social forces, including the vulgar prejudice against anatomy and his professional rivalries with the older practitioners. George Eliot explores the political issues involved in Lydgate’s appointment to the New Hospital for fevers, where his research takes place, and keeps his work there in a highly politicized context, as his fortunes are tied to those of the power-broker responsible for the appointment, Mr. Bulstrode. In his discussion with the evangelical banker over the new chaplain for the hospital, Lydgate is shown participating in a localized boundary dispute with the clergy over hospital authority. Even in his own appointment, Lydgate is an instrument in a struggle for provincial power between Bulstrode, whose goal is “to gain as much power as possible” (M, 16:152), and the local opposition to his rule. There is a competition with the old infirmary for patients, a campaign against the New Hospital by the rest of the medical profession (which refuses to participate and tries to hinder subscriptions), and a financial crisis that threatens to sink the hospital following Bulstrode’s public disgrace. Lydgate’s research is finally halted by the press of financial problems, which forces him to seek a more lucrative practice curing gout in wealthy patients. His research thus takes place within a series of negotiations between multifarious social forces, not in isolation from them. Rather than a mythologized scientist locked within a sealed laboratory of pure ideas, Lydgate is a particular individual working within a historically defined medical tradition in a particular time and place. From the wiser and more objective perspective of the narrator, Lydgate’s knowledge is limited and his assumptions are flawed; he poses his fundamental questions “not quite in the way required by the awaiting answer” (M, 15:146). His scientific ideas are not, then, abstractly “pure” or objective but are part of a historically determined group of ideas and assumptions—such as that of the “primitive tissue”—that were unique to a brief span of time in the early part of the nineteenth century. His medicine is not simply a prescient version of the future; it includes medical dead ends, notably Bichat’s tissue theory. Consequently, Lydgate—despite his romantic enthusiasm and altruistic dreams—remains a product of his own profoundly historicized culture. His refusal to acknowledge these necessary limitations on the pursuit of pure science, on the embrace of the ideal as reality, leaves him trapped within them. Thus, on a grand scale, he continues to act out the scene with Laure.

For George Eliot, naive realism manifests a state of unreflective and premature faith in the abilities of language to refer truthfully to material reality and of the scientist, armed with his belief in scientific verification, to comprehend it. Her critique of Lydgate’s science, however, does not suggest a fundamental division between science and literature, nor does it imply a superiority of aesthetic over scientific realism. The two share an essential kinship in Middlemarch, one Lydgate’s naiveté does not eradicate but only emphasizes. Thus, her exploration of science can be seen as a cautionary tale against a form of naive science that, overconfident in its methodology and in the referentiality of its concepts, turns back on itself and comes full circle. With the sort of blind faith in the scientific method that Lydgate exhibits, concepts prematurely receive the status of truth. Thus, the whole positivist project of building a firm basis of knowledge becomes contaminated with naive conclusions, presenting the same obstacle to conceiving the real as that raised by the orthodox knowledge that the scientific method was meant to overturn. What matters to George Eliot is that the body can only be conceived, and so to underestimate the conceptual nature of science is to pervert its greatest asset.

Unlike her medical protagonist, George Eliot’s narrators consistently insist on the tentativeness of the connection between representation and referent. The Middlemarch narrator, using a microscope analogy reminiscent of Tyndall’s lectures, points to the essential relativity of perception: “Even with a microscope directed on a water-drop we find ourselves making interpretations which turn out to be rather coarse; for whereas under a weak lens you may seem to see a creature exhibiting an active voracity into which other small creatures actively play…a stronger lens reveals to you certain tiniest hairlets which make vortices for these victims while the swallower waits passively at his receipt of custom” (M, 6:58–59). As in the historical relativity of Bichat’s concept, referentiality is never assured in the stepwise progression from one level of signification to the other. The observer is always in the position of not knowing, of needing that “stronger lens” to overcome the misrepresentation of an “interpretation,” which is inevitably “rather coarse.”[57]Middlemarch implies a far weaker and more problematic correspondence between idea and referent than Lydgate allows, and it is a problem that even empirical verification does not entirely overcome.

George Eliot’s novels, particularly the later ones, are emphatic about pointing to their own status as representations and to their necessarily imperfect ability to represent the everyday experience they so painstakingly describe. But they use this same arbitrariness, which so troubles Lydgate, as a sign of their own authority to speak about the world.[58] For this weak correspondence of idea to thing makes it possible to imagine a world that is other than it seems. The same autonomy of representation that creates the problem of misrepresentation and that leads to necessarily “coarse” interpretations also makes possible the independent perception of the “best self.” For it is only through the independence of ideas from the tyranny of individual social experience that the larger vision of relations that constitutes the real becomes possible.

Middlemarch as a whole celebrates the freedom from the ordinary that representation allows. Though she exposes the hypocrisy and ineffectiveness of the older practitioners, George Eliot also has a keen perception of the wit and humor of their theatrical medicine and the almost random generation of narratives it inspires, with its conspiracy of ignorance between doctor, patient, and the gossip-riddled community. The charwoman Nancy Nash, for example, “became a subject of compassionate conversation” because of her tumor, which was “at first declared to be as large and hard as a duck’s egg, but later in the day to be about the size of ‘your fist’ ” (M, 45:441). After treatment, it “wandered to another region with angrier pain.” Nancy Nash’s tumor “of the wandering sort” (M, 45:442) has a wondrous quality in its extraordinary transformations and migrations; it transfigures the ordinary body of the simple charwoman into a region of mystery bordering on the magical.[59]

The purpose of George Eliot’s realism, as we have seen, is to point beyond the relativistic perceptions of everyday experience to a realm of signification that is free from the limitations of individual experience. But a simple description of “things as they are”—theoretically impossible, in any event—by itself cannot accomplish this goal, for it simply reproduces those same facts that already determine the distorted perceptions of the “ordinary self.” Simple description of everyday life leads to the same inescapable but erroneous conclusions that everyday life produces. Realism for George Eliot always demands the wider, unconfined vision of social relations that defines the “best self,” the perspective that floats free from all social determinants, existing in an Arnoldian realm of pure representation. The acknowledgment, then, of realism’s representational nature becomes indicative of its freedom from “things as they are.” Like Lydgate’s early independence from the politics of his profession, this narrative independence becomes a condition of the authority to speak because it represents the wider perspective of the “best self.” By pointing to the boundaries and to the fallibility of even her own interpretation, the narrator distances herself from the central element of the socially determined perspective: the characteristic inability to differentiate what one knows from what is real.

Because the “best self” floats free from “things as they are,” it is synonymous with the ability to conceptualize, to penetrate beyond the surface and escape the prisonhouse of the everyday. The realist project, then, as a representation of the “best self,” centers on these moments of penetration, conceptualization, and imagination, in addition to its concrete description of facts and events. Middlemarch combines, as we have seen, the dense texture of dates, places, and meticulous particularity with the ongoing efforts—of Dorothea, Casaubon, and Ladislaw as well as of Lydgate—to look beyond these specifics for their general significance. This act of looking beyond the surface, so paradigmatic in Lydgate’s medicine, is nothing more nor less than the act of representation. Thus, in a perfect circularity, realism comes to hinge on the representation of representation.[60] Thus George Eliot’s exploration of Lydgate, both in his conception of the body and in his scientific view of women, is a central expression of this realist impulse.

So when Sir James Paget, in his unguarded astonishment, describes her creation of Lydgate as “a whole universe formed out of nothing,” his remark underscores the remarkable success of the author’s project even as it acknowledges the basis for it. That “nothing” acknowledges the same independence of representation that she proposes in the novel. Because Paget plays the role of Lydgate, it is as if, for one brief moment, her fictional surgeon has come alive in Paget and, instead of denying the potentials of representation along with its problems, has marveled even briefly at its possibilities. To George Eliot’s way of thinking, Paget’s astonishment represented a hope for the project of Victorian science, because it meant that Lydgate’s fate was not necessarily the fate of a social enterprise to which she was, herself, deeply committed.


1. This history is summarized from Clarke and Jacyna, Nineteenth-Century Origins of Neuroscientific Concepts, 1–58.

2. The division of nerves into those for sensation and those for action was made in the second decade of the century and became widely accepted in Britain as the “Bell-Magendie Law” of 1822.

3. Marshall Hall, Memoirs of the Nervous System (London: 1837; Washington, D.C.: University Publications of America, 1978).

4. As I have tried to demonstrate, ideas about neurology intersected with the growing interest in a second level of consciousness that followed Mesmer’s experiments and culminated in Freud’s theory of the dynamic unconscious. For a comprehensive treatment of this topic, see Ellenberger’s “The First Dynamic Psychiatry (1775–1900),” chapter 5 in The Discovery of the Unconscious, 110–81.

5. The problem of dissemblance and the related problem of eloquence is discussed in Starr, “ ‘Only a Boy’: Notes on Sentimental Novels.”

6. George Eliot, ed. Stephen Gill (New York: Penguin, 1980), 199.

7. See Catherine Gallagher, The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form, 1832–1867 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 219–43; and George Levine, The Realistic Imagination: English Fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterley (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 3–22.

8. On the problem of historical relativism in the philosophy of science, see Jarrett Leplin’s introduction to Scientific Realism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

9. George Eliot and Lewes considered themselves husband and wife, though their marriage was never legally recognized.

10. For all subsequent references to this incident, see Gordon S. Haight, ed., The George Eliot Letters, 9 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954–78), 5:337–38.

11. Sir James Paget (1814–99) was a leading surgeon and had been surgeon-extraordinary to Queen Victoria since 1858; see Gordon S. Haight, George Eliot: A Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 417.

12. Pierre Victor Renouard, Histoire de la Medecine, 2 vols. (Paris, 1846); John Thompson, An Account of the Life, Lectures, and Writings of William Cullen, MD, 2 vols. (London, 1832 and 1859); Southwood Smith, Treatise on Fever (London, 1830); J. Rutherford Russell, History and Heroes of the Art of Medicine (London, 1861). The most extensive guide to her scientific reading in preparation for the novel will be found in the introduction to George Eliot’s Middlemarch Notebooks: A Transcription, ed. and introduction by John Clark Pratt and Victor A. Neufeldt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979). But see also the still useful introduction to Quarry for Middlemarch, ed. and introduction by Anna Theresa Kitchel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950).

13. Paget met Lewes at Oxford in 1868 and attended his son, Thornton, during the five long months of his fatal illness in 1869 at the Priory, Eliot and Lewes’ home. He was undoubtedly familiar, by the time of his remark in 1872, with her extensive knowledge of Victorian science. We know that the two discussed “things medical a propos of Middlemarch” as she worked on the novel (Haight, Biography, 442).

14. Lewes repeated the claim of Lydgate’s fictionality three years later, in 1875 (Letters, 6:196). Speculation on historical sources for Lydgate is by no means confined to the science-oriented Paget; because George Eliot frequently used figures drawn from life, Middlemarch critics continue to question her claim that there was no original for Lydgate. As examples, see Kitchel, Quarry, 2–4; and see Haight, Biography, 32–33, 447–48.

15. Recent scholarship on George Eliot and science has located structural relationships between her narrative principles and the concepts of evolution, organicism, pathological anatomy, and physiological psychology. See Beer, Darwin’s Plots; Simon During, “The Strange Case of Monomania: Patriarchy in Literature, Murder in Middlemarch, Drowning in Daniel Deronda,Representations 23 (1988): 86–104; George Levine, Darwin and the Novelists: Patterns of Science in Victorian Fiction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988); Levine, “George Eliot’s Hypothesis of Reality,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 35 (1980): 1–28; Levine, The Realistic Imagination; Lawrence Rothfield, Vital Signs: Medical Realism in Nineteenth-CenturyFiction (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), 84–119; and Sally Shuttleworth, “Fairy Tale or Science? Physiological Psychology in Silas Marner,” in Languages of Nature: Critical Essays on Science and Literature, ed. Ludmilla Jordanova (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986), 244–88. Jordanova provides an overview of epistemic shifts in the natural sciences from 1700–1900, with reference to the novel as a genre, in her Languages of Nature, 15–47. See also Jordanova’s discussion of the language of science in her Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Science and Literature (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).

16. Her most well-documented collaboration with Lewes is on his Comte’s Philosophy of the Sciences (1853), which she helped edit and promote; his Life of Goethe (1855), where she deserves the full status of co-author; and his Problems of Life and Mind (1873–79), which she completed after his death. On Lewes and Eliot’s relationship, see Haight’s Biography and Anna Theresa Kitchel, George Lewes and George Eliot: A Review of Records (New York: John Day, 1933). On the aesthetic principles of Lewes’s philosophy, see Peter Allen Dale, “George Lewes’ Scientific Aesthetic: Restructuring the Ideology of the Symbol,” in One Culture: Essays in Science and Literature, ed. George Levine (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), 92–116.

17. This dichotomy characterized the “Two Cultures Debate” between Thomas Huxley and Matthew Arnold. For a basic critique of this debate, see Levine, One Culture, 3–32. On the relationship between literary and scientific discourse in the Victorian period, see Anita Levy, Other Women, particularly chapter 1.

18. On the history of pathological anatomy, Lydgate’s specialty, and a discussion of its Paris origins and the professional resistance to it in England, see Russell C. Maulitz, Morbid Appearances: The Anatomy of Pathology in the Early Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987). See also Rothfield, Vital Signs, 84–119.

19. On the structure of the medical profession and the campaign for reform in the first half of the century, see Ivan Waddington, The Medical Profession in the Industrial Revolution (Dublin: Gill, 1984). On the medical profession in the later century, see M. Jeanne Peterson, The Medical Profession in Mid-Victorian London (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).

20. Eliot’s notes on the Lancet are reproduced in Quarry.

21. All Middlemarch quotations are taken from Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life, ed. David Carroll (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986). Parenthetical references to this edition are abbreviated as M and include both chapter and page number for ease of reference.

22. The professionalization of medicine hinged on this fundamental shift of power from client to the physician based on the profession’s new claims to specialized knowledge. On the doctor-client relationship, see Waddington, Medical Profession, 9–28; and Dorothy Porter and Roy Porter, Patient’s Progress (Cambridge: Polity, 1989).

23. On medical “penetration,” see Jordanova, Sexual Visions, 51–57. See also Michel Foucault’s discussion of the epistemic shift in the human sciences from a perception of significance as available on the surface to seeing it as resident within a hidden structure, in The Order of Things (New York: Vintage, 1970), 125–65.

24. In this, Lydgate resembles the carpenter Adam Bede, who is first seen repairing the flawed work of his brother Seth, as Elaine Scarry has noted (“Work and the Body in Hardy and Other Nineteenth-Century Novelists,” Representations 3 [1983]: 121, n. 27). Both men are similarly distinguished as characters by the exceptional quality of their work.

25. On the shifting definition of quackery in relation to orthodoxy, see Roy Porter, Health for Sale: Quackery in England 1660–1850 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989).

26. See Elaine Scarry’s analysis of the manner in which artifacts extend the body’s sentient powers and acuity in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 281–85. I am also indebted here to Scarry’s concept of “perceptual reach,” which she outlines in her discussion of Thomas Hardy and other Victorian novelists, including George Eliot (“Work and the Body,” 108–11). Throughout this essay, I rely on the conceptual vocabulary Scarry developed in her own work. On the concept of the boundaries of the human body, see her “Work and the Body” and “Consent and the Body: Injury, Departure, and Desire,” New Literary History 21 (1990): 867–96. The concepts of sentience and its opposite, perceptual stupidity, are discussed in The Body in Pain, 281–96.

27. F. F. Cartwright, A Social History of Medicine, Themes in British Social History (London: Longman, 1977), 143.

28. Lydgate and pathological anatomy are considereed in relation to “medical realism” in Lawrence Rothfield’s Vital Signs: Medical Realism in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), 84–119.

29. Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564), Flemish anatomist regarded as the founder of modern anatomy; Marie Francois Xavier Bichat (1771–1802), French anatomical pathologist and the founder of histology.

30. On the history of anatomy in nineteenth-century Britain, and on the popular association of anatomy with murder following the Burke and Hare trial, see Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute.

31. On the importance of this paradox as an historical shift in medicine, see Michel Foucault’s discussion of Bichat and anatomy in The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Vintage, 1975), 124–46.

32. That Lydgate is indeed studying anatomy in Paris is alluded to several times. “He had known [Pierre] Louis in Paris, and had followed many anatomical demonstrations in order to ascertain the specific differences of typhus and typhoid” (M, 16:161). In her research on historical material for the novel, George Eliot noted that the ability to distinguish between the two types of fever was an achievement of pathological anatomy, Lydgate’s specialty (Quarry, 29). More generally, the Paris schools were recognized as the place to study anatomy, as bodies were practically unavailable in England but plentiful in Paris, as Eliot also noted (Quarry, 24).

33. Simon During regards the enigmatic quality of the act as its central significance; see “The Strange Case of Monomania,” 93.

34. In her discussion of “Nature unveiling before science,” Jordanova shows how this same paradox functions in Victorian science generally, since the veil both protects and masks (Sexual Visions, 87–110).

35. See Levine, Realistic Imagination, 252–90; and see Beer, Darwin’s Plots, 151–52.

36. The Eliot-Lewes library included all of Tyndall’s major works, and George Eliot’s annotations are found in their copy of Tyndall’s “Scientific Limit of the Imagination”; see William Baker, The George Eliot–George Henry Lewes Library: An Annotated Catalogue of Their Books at Dr. Williams’s Library, London (New York: Garland, 1977), see also Baker’s The Libraries of George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, English Literary Studies (Victoria, BC: University of Victoria, 1981). Tyndall’s relationship to Lewes and George Eliot dates at least back to 1863, when he and Huxley critiqued drafts of Lewes’ work on Aristotle (Letters, 4:119). In 1874, she calls Tyndall “a favourite of mine…. I get on with him delightfully” (Letters, 9:183). On Tyndall’s life and work, see W. H. Brock, N. D. McMillan, and R. C. Mollan, eds., John Tyndall: Essays on a Natural Philosopher, Historical Studies in Irish Science and Technology (Dublin: Royal Dublin Society, 1981).

37. John Tyndall, Essays on the Use and Limit of the Imagination in Science (London: Longmans, 1870), 16.

38. Lydgate and the scientific imagination are thoroughly discussed in Levine, Realistic Imagination, 252–90, and in Levine’s earlier essay, “George Eliot’s Hypothesis of Reality.” The philosophical debate over the “hypothesizing activity” is discussed in Michael York Mason, “Middlemarch and Science: Problems of Life and Mind,” Review of English Studies 22 (1971): 151–69. See also Beer on the role of imagination in Darwin as well as the scientific imagination in Middlemarch (Darwin’s Plots, 149–80).

39. Beer (Darwin’s Plots, 152) cites the close parallel of this passage with Thomas Huxley’s “The Physical Basis of Life,” which originally appeared in The Fortnightly Review, ns 5 (February 1869): 132.

40. Wordsworth articulates this belief in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” (1802). It is also prevalent in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century medical writing on the social origin of nervous disorders, such as George Cheyne’s English Malady.

41. One of George Eliot first stories, “The Lifted Veil,” describes a protagonist who is cursed by the absence of this perceptual threshold.

42. See Thomas W. Laqueur’s discussion of “Humanitarian Narratives,” in which he links the function of the realistic novel to the autopsy report, the clinical report, and the social inquiry. As he points out, each of these narrative forms is a stepchild of the empiricist revolution; “Bodies, Details, and the Humanitarian Narrative,” in The New Cultural History, ed. Lynn Hunt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 176–204.

43. “The Natural History of German Life,” Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), 270. This essay was originally published in Westminster Review 66 (July 1856), 51–79.

44. On positivism, see Leszek Kolakoswki, Positivist Philosophy from Hume to the Vienna Circle, trans. Norbert Guterman (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972). The influence of Comte on Eliot is much debated. Haight minimalizes it (Biography, 301), but T. R. Wright convincingly establishes a far more pervasive influence at work than Haight allows; see Wright’s “George Eliot and Positivism,” Modern Language Review (1981): 257–72.

45. In “The Future of German Philosophy,” originally published in Leader 6 (July 28, 1855): 723–24.

46. See also her later note, “Historic Imagination,” in Essays, 446–47.

47. George Levine writes, “The project of the Victorian novel increasingly appeared to me as a cultural twin to the project of Victorian science; even the great aesthetic ideals of fiction writers—truth, detachment, self-abnegation—echoed with the ideals of contemporary science” (Darwin and the Novelists, vii).

48. The relationship between George Eliot and Matthew Arnold’s writing is discussed in Gallagher, Industrial Reformation, 218–52.

49. Culture and Anarchy, ed. J. Dover Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966).

50. George Eliot discusses Keepsake and its genre in “The Natural History of German Life” (Essays, 268).

51. On the philosophical structure of naive realism in science, see Levine, One Culture, 3–32.

52. On the medical project of professionalization and George Eliot’s professional concerns as a female author, see Norman N. Feltes, Modes of Production of Victorian Novels (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 36–56.

53. The opposite view has dominated Middlemarch criticism for years. A prominent example is Gordon Haight’s introduction to his edition of Middlemarch, in which he compares Rosamond to a siren and claims Lydgate “meant to lash himself to the mast and stop his ears” (Middlemarch [Boston: Houghton, 1956], xix). Thus Lydgate, with his scientific view of woman, tries to defend himself from the danger represented by the female. But in fact it is this same scientific view, these same stopped ears, that blinds Lydgate to Vincy’s nature, one that other characters in the novel have little difficulty recognizing. Lydgate is represented as the victim of his own illusions about women, which is very different than claiming that he is a victim of the female herself.

54. On Bichat, see Elizabeth Haigh, Xavier Bichat and the Medical Theory of the Eighteenth Century, Medical History, Supplement 4 (London: Wellcome Institute, 1984).

55. On the problem of referentiality in science, see the collection of essays in Jarrett Leplin, ed., Scientific Realism. I am particularly indebted to two essays: Hilary Putnam, “What is Realism?” (pp. 140–53), and Larry Lauden, “A Confutation of Convergent Realism” (pp. 218–49), which specifically addresses the problem of historical relativism.

56. Ladislaw is describing the futility of Casaubon’s project to Dorothea.

57. A similar image appears in the much earlier essay, “The Natural History of German Life,” when she discusses the influence of perspective on the observer’s interpretation of a group of peasants (Essays, 269).

58. Gallagher outlines the centrality of self-referentiality in the later novels of George Eliot, and its connection to the Arnoldian view of culture, much more skillfully than I am able to do here (Industrial Reformation, 249–52).

59. In her discussion of Silas Marner, Sally Shuttleworth relates this same sense of magicality to theories of organic social evolution, so that magic represents an earlier stage in social development in George Eliot’s novels; see “Fairy Tale or Science?”

60. This circularity is implicit in Arnold’s view of culture as an independent sphere representing, ultimately, itself; see Gallagher, Industrial Reformation, 236–37.

The Story of the Story of the Body

Preferred Citation: Logan, Peter Melville. Nerves and Narratives: A Cultural History of Hysteria in 19th-Century British Prose. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.