07 July 2014

Review: Moral Authority, Men of Science, and the Victorian Novel by Anne DeWitt

Hardcover, 273 pages
Published 2013
Borrowed from the library
Read May 2014
Moral Authority, Men of Science, and the Victorian Novel
by Anne DeWitt

So, here I am working on my dissertation, trying to say something intelligent, insightful, and coherent about Thomas Hardy's Two on a Tower, when I come across a very good article by one Anne DeWitt in Nineteenth-Century Literature, which is reasonably in line with my own take on the novel. This strikes off a memory: when I was working on my article about Wives and Daughters for the Gaskell Journal, I similarly had to work around an Anne DeWitt article that preempted some of what I had to say. (Admittedly, to the benefit of that article, I think; I carved out my own space that was more interesting as a result.) So, this sends me off to figure out what else Anne DeWitt has written, since I've bumped into her work twice... and I find this book.

I position my dissertation as filling a gap in the field of Victorian literature and science: there are lots of monographs that take a disciplinary approach. You might find ones on literature and biology, literature and evolution, literature and astronomy, literature and thermodynamics. But with rare exceptions (i.e., George Levine's Dying to Know), no one seems to tackle literature and science. That is, science as a way of knowing in and of itself, an epistemology with its own rules-- rules people are often trying to extend outside of science. My project was born out of my own frustrations as a graduate student way back in 2010, when I was taking a seminar on Darwin, Hardy, and Woolf, and couldn't find any generalized conception of the Victorian scientist that could help me understand the character of Fitzpiers in Hardy's The Woodlanders. So, I decided, I'd write that book myself.

Only Anne DeWitt has beat me to it! She completed her Ph.D. in 2009, and this book is based on her dissertation, which means she probably already had this whole thing written back when I began to conceive of my project. But the book didn't come out until late 2013-- around six months after I turned in my dissertation prospectus!

And the worst part of it all is that the book is good. Which is to say that it not only covers the topic I am interested in, but pursues it from a similar angle to me. DeWitt is interested in the way that men of science function as moral authorities in Victorian fiction, either ones to be emulated (like Roger Hamley in Wives and Daughters) or ones to be eschewed (like Doctor Benjulia in Collins's Heart and Science). We often end up having the same critiques of previous scholarship, and reach congruent conclusions. Our author lists are sickeningly similar: Eliot, Gaskell, Hardy, Collins, Wells! It's an excellent piece of scholarship, and one that frustrated me the whole way through because she was always saying things I had thought of or (worse) saying things I wish I'd thought of. She pursues her argument with a care and logic I'm not sure I'm capable of (yet?).

Anyway, I'm sure I'll get over my crisis. I know there are areas we don't quite line up, or come at texts from complementary but distinct angles. But I will have to work that much harder to articulate the meaning and worth of my project as a result of reading this excellent monograph, and for that, I will always love and hate it.

(Worst part of it all is that as a university press publication, the thing costs $50 at the cheapest. Which means that, since our library only has the eBook, I will be getting the dratted thing out from ILL again and again when I would much rather just add it to my own reference library!)

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