Changing the Victorian Gestalt: Responseby Laura Otis

Victorian Studies


spring 2014

Changing the Victorian Gestalt:


Laura Otis

An abortion plot in Middlemarch? How had i missed this? i rushed to Doreen Thierauf’s nAVsA session wondering what poor cottage girl had risked her life. What had i overlooked in george Eliot’s intricate, chambered-nautilus sentences? What had

Fred Vincy been up to? seconds into Thierauf’s talk, i realized that the abortion plot involved rosamond, whose swan-like neck some readers have longed to twist. Forbidden to ride while pregnant, she defies her physician husband, resulting in a miscarriage and a marked lack of grief. Thierauf’s paper opens a new perspective on rosamond: suppose she isn’t a brain-eating basil plant after all? Thierauf’s historically supported reading of rosamond as a woman controlling her reproduction, her body, and her life reconfigured my understanding of Middlemarch (1871–72).

The preceding essays by Doreen Thierauf, stefan Waldschmidt, and natalie Houston all describe gestalt-changing research. As they add new pixels to an emerging image, their studies promise to change viewers’ understandings of what they are seeing: what is foreground, what is background, and where they should focus. While they differ in their subjects and methods, they raise key epistemological questions at a time when the shift from print to digital culture demands a rethinking of Victorian studies. These three scholars read literature in the context of culture, questioning what constitutes evidence for claims about either.

When students ask me about women’s lives in 1870, i often worry about circularity. Theoretical schools vary in their assessments of how much historical knowledge one needs to read a novel or poem, but certainly some historical context is required. But how much of the historical knowledge we use to comprehend literature comes from novels and poetry? Houston’s paper, in particular, raises this question by showing how few Victorian poems have been analyzed relative to all those published. Of the many fine research projects discussed at 512 LAurA OTis

VicTOriAn sTuDiEs / VOLumE 56, nO. 3 nAVsA, Thierauf’s, Waldschmidt’s, and Houston’s stand out as studies that could change the perceived shape of literary knowledge.

As a scholar who compares literary and scientific writing, i relish differences in the ways that writers prove their points. Evidence may involve systemic changes observed through sensory experience, words quoted from texts, or patterns detected through quantitative analysis. current studies in the field of literature and science focus on code, gaming, media, digital technology, animal studies, neuroscience, disability, and visual culture. nearly all of them challenge verbal language’s traditional central role in human communication. in any discipline, unsupported premises often reveal the most about a thinker’s paradigms. By asking “how do you know that?” a scholar relatively new to a field can make a vital contribution. These three essays confront literary scholars with the material facts of production, reproduction, and death—of books and of human beings. in doing so, they raise questions about what counts as evidence, since the phenomena they track have left few or no direct traces.

How does one study literary representations of a social phenomenon that no one dared to write about? Thierauf takes on this epistemological challenge in her essay. Her aims as a literary scholar are “reading rigorously in the absence of explicit evidence” and “analyz[ing] the discursive ramifications of that reading practice” (480). How do the structure and significance of the novel change if one concludes that rosamond actively ended an unwanted pregnancy? The creativity of Thierauf’s study lies in the way she combines literary close reading with sociohistorical research. Alongside Middlemarch, she reads Eliza Lynn Linton’s 1868 advice column to married women, which—although Eliot’s novel is set nearly four decades earlier—is just the kind of material that rosamond would have read. As Thierauf indicates, rosamond closely follows Linton’s advice, never nagging or confronting Lydgate but instead exuding silent self-righteousness. Thierauf reads medical books and journals to show that since the seventeenth century, doctors had warned that horseback riding could cause miscarriages. she cites an 1871 case (again, after

Middlemarch was set and just after it was written) in which a husband and wife accused of chemically inducing an abortion were released because the miscarriage was attributed to riding and judged an accident. Thierauf offers more tenuous evidence by pointing out Eliot’s entry, “Eringo root,” in a notebook for Middlemarch (488). she mentions a medical book

Eliot might have read, which identified one of eringo root’s reputed cHAnging THE VicTOriAn gEsTALT: rEspOnsE 513 spring 2014 powers in Elizabethan times as the ability to end pregnancies. since another attribute was “restor[ing] decayed vigor” (qtd. in 488), however,

Eliot might have had the root in mind for casaubon. Taken collectively,

Thierauf’s evidence points quite strikingly toward the view that Victorian readers—subtly guided by Eliot—would have interpreted rosamond’s defiant ride as an attempt to remove an unwanted baby.

Thierauf’s reading becomes all the more valuable because she doesn’t stop there. if Eliot did hope readers would see the miscarriage as planned, how must readings of the novel change to incorporate that fact? Thierauf notes that the illicit ride constitutes a “tipping point” in the newlywed Lydgates’ power struggle (482). rosamond aims to rise socially and does not want to have children until she and her uncooperative husband have advanced toward her goal. readers of

Middlemarch often view rosamond as merely selfish (and have designs on her neck), in contrast to generous, flawed Dorothea. Thierauf’s research offers a new perspective. in a culture where men dictate women’s roles, suppose rosamond—who later does want children—is merely using the only means available to control her family planning? some critics would resist reading a Victorian novel in these twenty-first-century terms, but Thierauf takes care to frame her analysis in relation to