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Sylvia A. Pamboukian, Doctoring the Novel: Medicine and Quackery from Shelley to Doyle

Athens, Ohio University Press, 2012. 207 p. ISBN 978-0-8214-1990-8
Laurence Talairach-Vielmas
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Sylvia A. Pamboukian, Doctoring the Novel: Medicine and Quackery from Shelley to Doyle, Athens, Ohio University Press, 2012. 207 p. ISBN 978-0-8214-1990-8

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1The trend of Victorian studies to focus on the relationships between literature and medicine has been sustained in the last decade, and Pamboukian’s Doctoring the Novel: Medicine and Quackery from Shelley to Doyle is one of the latest examples. Pamboukian explores novels ranging from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818–1831) to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Stark Munro Letters (1895) in order to analyse how the selected nineteenth-century writers (Mary Shelley, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle) deal with shifting definitions of orthodox medicine and quackery at a time when the medical field was becoming increasingly professionalized while patent medicine was being sold by chemists, perfumers or quacks and pills and nostrums were publicized all over the country. Although the Medical Act of 1858 tried to put an end to the thriving of unqualified druggists and quacks by creating a single public register for all legally recognized practitioners, those who were not on the Medical Register, and thus not publicly recognized as medical practitioners, could still legally practice healing. But Pamboukian tries to see beyond this official divide between legal and unofficial medical practitioners and approaches the medical field as a grey area where orthodox and fringe medicine become undistinguishable.

2Because the novels she looks at deal with anatomy, quack doctors or pharmaceuticals, she contextualizes the narratives and recalls the impact of pieces of legislation aimed at regulating the medical professions and marketplace, such as the 1815 Apothecaries Act, the 1832 Anatomy Act, the 1858 Medical Act, the Arsenic Act of 1851, the Poison Act of 1857, and the 1868 Pharmacy Act. Her point is that because sound medical practice never ensured efficacy of treatment, orthodox medicine and quackery were distinguished by other means, such as by social behaviours. Hence the significance of their representation in Victorian fiction.

3Chapter 1, dealing with anatomy in Frankenstein places the novel in the context of the 1832 Anatomy Act so as to show how anatomy is not only defined as central to the medical field and the description of medical education in the novel but also surrounded by antagonistic meanings. As a sign of science, progress and professionalism, anatomy is, however, also linked with crime, greed or exploitation. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, more and more people denounced the pratices of anatomists and their use of human bodies for medical research and education. Unlike many European countries, in England, just like in Scotland, Ireland or North America, the bodies of criminals, prostitutes or paupers could not be used for medical purposes before the 1832 Anatomy Act. The 1752 Murder Act granted anatomists the use of all the criminals hanged at Tyburn (and later Newgate from 1783), but the demand for corpses was high, and anatomists pressed for reform, citing the central role of anatomical knowledge in medical science and the therapeutic applications of dissection. Frankenstein shows how the lack of corpses allowed resurrectionists to thrive, Frankenstein himself stealing his anatomical specimens in churchyards. By depicting a cruel and ambitious scientist in a novel which looks at ‘the relationship between science and humanity’ (23), Pamboukian underlines some of the ambiguities of the text, such as Frankenstein’s varying view of the earth as sometimes sacred or as a mere receptacle of material bodies, and underlines his feelings of guilt as if he were a murderer. However, Pamboukian tends to juxtapose references to contemporary anatomists (like Sir Astley Cooper’s speech before the Select Committee on Anatomy in 1828 as President of the Royal College of Surgeons) or cases of body-snatching (such as the 1828 Burke and Hare case)—references which, although prior to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein are posterior to the first edition of 1818). Moreover, references to Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood are very arguably traced in the narrative and Shelley’s description of Frankenstein’s body. Pamboukian ends up defining anatomical practice as ‘quackery’ in both Frankenstein and in the Burke and Hare case because of, as she argues, Dr Knox’s deception during the trial, quackery becoming synonymous with immorality or criminality.

4Chapter 2 looks at Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1857) and Bleak House (1853) in the context of the 1858 Medical Act and the cholera outbreaks, and tries to distinguish professional doctors from professional healers. Dickens’s novels teem with references to medical figures and the medical field in general. Tropes of disease permeate most of his novels, and are often connected with society, the city or the economic or legal system. In Little Dorrit (1857) and Bleak House (1853), Pamboukian contends, medical professionals are depicted as both physical and spiritual healers, medicine being associated with Christian virtue. Dickens’s portraits of medical professionals as Christian heroes, binding medical skill and Christian charity, as illustrated by Woodcourt, for instance, differ from his earlier depictions of charlatanism, as in Martin Chuzzlewit (1844).

5Chapter 3, on Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853), focusses on the portrait of John Graham Bretton, a significant male character who not only hovers between ‘medical orthodoxy and quackery’ but also renders unstable categories such as masculinity, Englishness, propriety or normality. Published in a period of medical professionalization and at the time when famous pills, such as Morison’s or Holloway’s, were sold at every counter, Villette shows the shifting definitions of orthodox medicine. Graham Bretton, described ‘as a cordial’ in the novel, is a successful healer. Simultaneously, his flirtatious behaviour, as with Ginevra Fanshawe, subverts the norms of ‘orthodox medical conduct’ (84). In addition, his duplicity when he managed to enter the school grounds or his courtship of Polly, as well as his prescribing of placebos undermine his status as an embodiment of orthodox medicine. In so doing, Pamboukian contends, he reveals the instability of the values and norms he symbolizes.

6In Chapter 4, Pamboukian looks at Wilkie Collins’s Armadale (1866). Published at a time when several pieces of legislation were trying to regulate the selling and buying of drugs (the 1851 Arsenic Act, the 1857 Poison Act and the later 1868 Pharmacy Act), Armadale plays on poisons, alluding to famous sensational cases of female poisoners. This time, poison, which can cure and kill, is defined as a pharmakon, epitomizing the unclear divide between orthodox and the fringe medicine which Pamboukian tries to probe. As she highlights, Collins blurs the boundaries between poisons and alcohol (Lydia Gwilt tries to poison Allan Armadale by putting arsenic in his brandy but Armadale is made sick by brandy not arsenic), making poison oscillate between the medicinal and the poisonous while Gwilt uses laudanum as a remedy. Furthermore, if the novel gets rid of the female poisoner at the end, other quacks, such as Mrs Oldershaw and Dr. Downward/Le Doux continue to thrive. Pamboukian never refers to other novels by Wilkie Collins featuring other quacks—which might have given her another view on Collins’s use of quackery in Armadale—nor does she contrast the charlatans depicted here with other portraits of medical practitioners in Collins’s fiction or in sensation fiction more generally.

7The study closes with Arthur Conan Doyle, whose novels were informed by his own medical training and practice during the 1870s and 1880s. The last chapter, on ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ (1892) and The Stark Munro Letters (1895), shows how medicine is used in Doyle’s narratives both to strengthen Holmes’s power and to undermine it, linked as it is with illusion, deception, quackery and crime. Thus, in the chosen narratives, medicine is described as a shifty field, eventually showing that ‘illusion is both necessary and dangerous to scientific inquiry’ (138) and medical practice. Pamboukian concludes the chapter by arguing that ‘orthodoxy and quackery’ are ultimately impossible to separate, presenting Holmes as embodying ‘orthodox quackery’ and its dangers.

8The conclusion, which briefly tries to analyse the anonymous novel Vernon Galbray; or, the Empiric: The History of a Quack Dentist (1875) fails to fulfill its role as a conclusion so as to demonstrate what Pamboukian really sought to highlight in this study or what had led her to this choice of texts belonging to different periods, genres, or writers. The lack of synthesis will make us wonder as to the point of the whole work, as ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘quackery’ have passed through a series of definitions (not always convincing) and which may leave the reader disappointed. If the contextual reading and historicizing approach that Pamboukian’s book offers is interesting as such, it is too often reduced to a mere collage of contemporary references to medical texts or figures which fail to point out how the medical legislation or advances really impacted on the selected narratives more than any other published in the same period. Finally, the attempt to show a divide between medicine and quackery may fail to render a faithful picture of nineteenth-century society and culture and the complexities of the healing system.

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Laurence Talairach-Vielmas, « Sylvia A. Pamboukian, Doctoring the Novel: Medicine and Quackery from Shelley to Doyle », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 79 Printemps | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2014, consulté le 17 septembre 2019. URL :

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Laurence Talairach-Vielmas

Université de Toulouse (UTM)/Centre Alexandre Koyré (UMR 8560 – CNRS – EHESS - MNHN)

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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