Body History

Roy Porter

  • The Body and the French Revolution: Sex, Class and Political Culture by Dorinda Outram
    Yale, 197 pp, £22.00, May 1989, ISBN 0 300 04436 4
  • Victorian Suicide: Mad Crimes and Sad Histories by Barbara Gates
    Princeton, 190 pp, £19.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 691 09437 3
  • Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine between the 18th and 20th Centuries by Ludmilla Jordanova
    Harvester, 224 pp, £19.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 7450 0332 X
  • Family, Love and Work in the Lives of Victorian Gentlewomen by Jeanne Peterson
    Indiana, 241 pp, $39.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 253 20509 3

Suddenly, everyone seems to be writing about the body, and eyebrows are being raised. ‘What sort of history is the history of the body?’ asks Peter Biller in a recent review, voicing scepticism about the genre itself: even ‘a moderate example of body history’, he concludes, ‘can principally incarnate a certain blindness towards the past.’ Do academics feel similarly hesitant about studying more cerebral things – ideas, for example? Cold-water treatment of this kind merely proves the point historians of the body are making. We have lived too long within our Platonic, Pauline and Cartesian prejudices; we value the mind (no complaint about that), but deny the flesh, so that we no longer even entertain its history.

Things are changing. Foucault, feminism, New Historicism, Aids: each in its own way has provoked questions about how people conceive and treat their bodies, how their bodies were treated (appropriated, controlled, violated) in earlier times. Indeed, it is no accident that all of these books are by female scholars. Yet, with the lessons of ‘women’s studies’ in mind, their authors aim to avoid self-immolation within yet another specialist ghetto. Body history must be part of big history. It must display the body as the inexhaustible generator of representations for society at large, and as a crossroads of power, the new pineal gland mediating between personal and public, private and political.

The body incarnates the self in public. An upheaval such as the French Revolution, with its fundamental redefinition of the ‘body politic’, necessarily raised questions about the body in politics: how were liberté, égalité and fraternité to be incorporated in civic action, in the people under arms, in the virtuous family, in health and welfare? Not the least tragedy of that revolution, Dorinda Outram argues, was that, having guillotined the ‘king’s body’ and profaned the corpus christi, it failed to invent public spaces for republican bodies. Above all, this was because successive revolutionary cadres were iron-clad within a ‘male language of virtue’, inherited from Classical Stoicism and transmitted through civic humanism. Dominant revolutionary rhetoric privileged honour, truth, duty, la patrie and other moral absolutes, and declared its disdain for the frailties of the flesh. It taught men to kill heroically, and to die nobly (Outram’s finest chapter dissects Senecan revolutionary suicide). Yet this sanguinary code, despite its shining exempla and imperatives, proved singularly inept for helping le peuple to live well together. In a word, new revolutionism was but old machismo writ large.

As such, its lasting influence has been deplorable. Not just because – though this is bad enough – liberationist movements ever since have doomed themselves to repeating macho sloganisings redolent of the death-wish (will Trotskyite cells prove the last habitat of male chauvinism?). More seriously, the Revolution failed to equip the modern state with a working civics for the secularised body; and the capitalist state has in consequence been allowed to people itself with what Norbert Elias called homo clausus: the privatised bourgeois individual, self-excluded from a public life. Such principled passivity, Outram contends, has permitted that state encroachment upon the body which Foucault (himself the obsequist of the ‘death of the person’) discovered in the rise of the panoptic disciplines of control. Ultimately, it can offer no resistance to Fascism’s short way with the body: contempt, crucifixion and dismemberment. All that is left for the body to do in late capitalism, so runs the Frankfurtian creed, is to consume, and be consumed, in orgies of repressive desublimation.

Outram’s book fizzes with ideas; she proclaims bold new perspectives upon a cataclysm whose bearing on the politicisation of the body historians, as she rightly observes, have all too often neglected. Yet she herself does not redress this balance in any detail. True, she whets the appetite – above all, in a demythologisation of that reincarnation of Cartesian dualism, the guillotine, a hi-tech mode of decapitation simultaneously ‘humane’ and ‘dehumanising’. But the carnivalesque tumult of the sans-culottes, the histrionics of the Convention, the disciplined energy of the republic-at-arms, get hardly a mention. Disappointingly little use is made of the burlesque verdicts on the antics of the body so eloquently delivered in prints, cartoons and caricatures. Finally, Outram allows herself too little space to explore alternative body languages, as ideological footballs kicked around between revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries and, ultimately, Napoleonists.

Her book is thus less exploration than argument and agenda. The Terror serves as a peg for a provocative tract for the times, a way of back-projecting the modern dilemma – so well stated by Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man – of how to create a ‘public space defined by the public dignity of embodied individuals’. To rescue our past, we must resurrect the body, all too long hidden from history; and this must be done, not least because, in the modern political jungle, to save our selves we must learn to respect our bodies – and other people’s. Mainline political philosophies, capitalist and socialist alike, have left the body dangerously out of sight and out of mind.

The ultimate proof of this pudding is, of course, suicide, the act of negation/liberation which constitutes yet another body blow. Revolutionary suicide, making one’s exit like an antique Roman, was the final proof of self-mastery, spirit triumphant over the flesh: they slew the body and called it freedom. Barbara Gates’s fine study of Victorian suicide, taken as the harbinger of what Hardy called ‘the coming universal wish not to live’, ironically opens with the self-slaughter of one of the Revolution’s most implacable foes, Lord Castlereagh. And irony holds the key to 19th-century attitudes towards self-destruction. From pulpits down to penny-dreadfuls, Victorian moralists, absolute for improvement, respectability and duty, could not condone the coward’s escape.

Hence, as Gates shows via subtle readings of Mill, of Florence Nightingale’s death longings and, above all, of Carlylean renunciation, eminent Victorians given to bloody thoughts argued the ‘far better thing’ was not to short-circuit life’s burdens but to endure, to have the courage not to die. According to the leading Early Victorian psychiatrist, Forbes Winslow, even Cato himself was no pillar off virtue. Rather he was ‘enfeebled’ and ‘depressed’, a morbid soul who committed ‘a rash action’.

The only alternative to legal penalisation and religious stigmatisation lay in recourse to the extenuating insanity plea. The felo-de-se, deemed by common sympathy and legal fiction to have laboured under ‘disease of mind’, could not possibly have enacted that dignified drama of self-possession, inaugurated by Socrates and Brutus and revived by the ‘martyrs of Prairial’. Far from noble, he was neurotic, degenerate even. Long before Durkheim, suicide was medicalised into a ‘social fact’, a symptom of a sick society. Yet world-weary Victorian thinkers, far more than half in love with easeful death, insistently posed the forbidden question, ‘Is life worth living?’, and pondered whether true madness lay not in doing away with oneself but in keeping going. From Dickens to Conrad, Kipling and Hardy, fiction grew preoccupied with the suicide’s sense of an ending. By the Fin-de-Siècle, where else could a civilisation go, exhausted by restlessness, excess and taedium vitae? If direct action was taboo, intellectuals chose to wear themselves out with work, while, as Joan Brumberg has argued, women adopted the slow-motion self-dissolution of anorexia.

All surely were victims of what Outram diagnoses as the failure to transcend homo clausus. The liberal speculator, John Stuart Mill, asked himself if he’d be happy were all his projects to be fulfilled, answered no, and fell into suicidal despair. Substitute mammon for his mission, and Mill’s tale can be repeated for Messrs Merdle and Melmotte, the classic overreaching Victorian financial swindler-speculators. Speculation (Dickens and Trollope knew) produced its own psychopathology, which culminated in vengeance upon the body. Such were the moral pressures Victorians imposed, such the need for mental fight, for self-control, for the triumph of the will, that their regimen for healthy living (psyche enthroned over soma, conscious detachment from the body) itself reads like a recipe for making a sick self.

Here we must pause, however, and ask whether we are dealing merely with a world of essays and reviews and Catnach woodcuts, with the heartaches only of unrepresentative opinion-makers. Entitling one of her chapters, ‘Suicidal Women: Fact or Fiction?’, Gates asks whether Victorian damsels really died, as myth demanded, of shame and exposure, like the second Mrs Tanqueray or Millais’s Ophelia. A brusque and essentially negative answer emerges from juxtaposing Gates’s essay with Olive Anderson’s empirically-rich grass-roots study of real suicides.

In glamorising suicide, French revolutionaries legitimated a dangerous devaluation of the body. They also helped forge, so Outram argues, a further pernicious mythology: gender polarisation. Ancien Régime politics (revolutionaries contended) had been boudoir politics. Give women bedroom power, through the irresistible seductiveness of their bodies, and corruption follows. Ladies of easy virtue endangered men of virtue. The revolutionary solution: not to grant women overt political equality, but to exclude them from public life altogether. Politics was for men: for women – home and hearth. Such an ideology was internalised (to a degree) by the daughters of the Revolution itself, as Outram shows in exploring Mme Roland’s self-glorification as adoring wife and breast-feeding mother.

This tale of two bodies forms the text of Ludmilla Jordanova’s thoughtful investigation of our sexually-differentiated thought-world. Words, concepts, images and idealisation: all are supersaturated with gender – nature thus is female, culture male. And our discourse clusters these gendered objects into binary oppositions between masculine and feminine, which in turn (consciously and unconsciously) shape our readings of reality. If male is public and female private, men, it follows, must be active and women passive, or (put another way), men are victors – or villains! – and women victims. So acculturated are we to this relentless gender dichotomising that we hardly even notice when (as Jordanova shows in a telling example) medical advertisements for anti-depressant drugs always feature women – in one illustration, as a limp puppet, whose strings are pulled tight by the power of male medicine.

Jordanova’s aim is not to indict, nor to unveil a cultural conspiracy designed to lull women into anaesthetised subjection. It is rather to probe our discourses, verbal and visual (she makes excellent use of illustrations), their ‘levels’ and mediations, to highlight the en-gendering process: the freightings of ‘unveiling’ and ‘probing’ are themselves decoded in an imaginative discussion of the roles played by science and medicine in naturalisting gendered meanings. Sex-specific discourse maintains its plausibility precisely by its polyvalence. If woman is ‘natural’, she is simple, innocent and babyish; yet it is also the destiny of woman to rescue man from the corruptions of ‘male’ culture, history and politics. As her discussion of Michelet perfectly shows, gendering idealises as well as stigmatising, and – though women are classically the ‘other’ – it stereotypes men as well as women. Jordanova offers a sustained theorisation of the ‘world of difference’ culture of creates. If masculinity and femininity form ‘separate spheres’ of discourse, does this clinch the case that industrial capitalism created a polarisation of male and female social zones? Here we must return to the issue of the relation between rhetoric and reality.

Jordanova warns feminists against readings which take (male) words at face value, and her counsels of prudence are amply borne out by Jeanne Peterson’s ‘thick description’ of the lives of three generations of Victorian women, the Pagets and their circle. Samuel Paget was a shipper and brewer from Great Yarmouth; his wife, Betsey, bore 17 children, among whom James became a top surgeon at Bart’s, and (Sir) George professor of medicine at Cambridge. Peterson investigates Paget daughters, sisters, wives and aunts, as they moved and married within the ‘urban gentry’ of doctors, lawyers, ecclesiastics and academics. Were Paget women a silenced sisterhood, circumscribed by ‘separate spheres’? On the surface, yes. Few went away to school, fewer still to university. Some earned money, none a living, and unlike Paget males, not one of the women pursued a remunerated ‘tenure-track’ career or a vocation. They couldn’t: until late in the century women were debarred from the professions. Paget girls were groomed to lead different lives from their menfolk. Were they then – as ‘separate spheres’ analyses imply – obsessed with babies and the home, at best adornments to their husbands, at worst, the classic invalids? Were they intellectually infantilised? Or, rejecting all that, were they ablaze with frustration, proto-suffragettes, hell-bent on escape? They were, Peterson shows, none of these. They got good educations (mainly at home), cultivated their minds, painted, wrote and published; they climbed and played sport (cricket not croquet); they pursued good causes, works and charities; they travelled and socialised.

Some struck out on highly independent courses. Clara, wife of Sir George, decamped to Wales every summer to antiquarianise on her own (‘Whenever your Papa feels tired let him have some Fish,’ she would command her daughter, Rose, left to hold the fort in Cambridge). But most of them ‘job-shared’ with their ecclesiastical and academic spouses: indeed, in ways echoing revolutionary taunts against Marie-Antoinette, they were commonly the power in these ‘single-career’ partnerships. They maintained the social system and in so doing, wielded great informal clout. They were far from being desexualised; nor were they just baby-making machines (even Betsey, with her brood of 17, found time to paint under Crome and Cotman). They kept close company with their husbands, and held their children at bay. Whatever happened, Peterson wonders, to the Victorian capacity for making companionate marriages glow? Paget ladies did what they wanted, and liked what they did. Of course, what they wanted was socially-conditioned, and the Pagets were conventional women who wanted conventional things. Above all, they could do what they wanted because they moved in the right circles, and were never short of money and servants. Doubtless, had any of them ‘fallen’ or rebelled, all hell would have been let loose. All these qualifications notwithstanding, Peterson’s message is that the enormous condescension of historians – feminists, not least – towards Victorian women must stop.

Victorian legal exclusions were barbaric, and only Thatcherites want to reinstate Victorian double standards. Who could idealise an order which left women entirely dependent upon the good will of their menfolk? Yet it would be a monstrous impertinence for us to say that these women were ‘trapped’ in dolls’ houses of their own making. Who are we to plume ourselves on our progress when professional women are no less exploited in their careers than non-professional women were in the old world of patriarchal matrimony? A century of ‘emancipation’ has shockingly little to show for it, and it is an open issue whether we have anything to teach these strong-willed and level-headed Victorian women about the pursuit of happiness.

So we revert to an earlier question: ‘what sort of history is the history of the body?’ As Outram emphasises, it must be an account of embodied behaviour; its subject the creation of public selves, the dynamics of interpersonal exchanges; its context the system of spaces enabling or hindering this kind of interplay. It must attend to the defilements of the body, as studied by Gates, and to the gender ideologies examined by Jordanova. Finally, it must temper these by the touchstone of experience, in the manner developed by Peterson.