Forming People: Psychology and Victorian Novel Form

My book project argues that the innovations of Victorian novel form reshaped the set of experiences we recognize as a person. Deconstructing the self-contained, self-knowing subject it simultaneously helped to create, the novel form afforded experimentation with a multi-centered, process-oriented psychology that looks more like the material self of twenty-first-century neuropsychology than the self-contained, self-governing individual we tend to associate with Victorian liberalism. In fact, the emerging discipline of psychology and the burgeoning form of the novel in the mid-nineteenth century were allied in their investigations of the person as a complex bundle of sensations, volitions, and nervous functions interacting within a social field. Able to exceed the descriptive capacities of scientific discourse, the novel afforded literary experimentation with the self as both contained and volatile, both stable and in process, both psychologically integrated and physiological malleable. 

Samuel Wells, "Symbolical Head," How To Read Character: A New Illustrated Handbook of Phrenology and Physiology  (London: Vickers, 1860) p. 39.

Samuel Wells, "Symbolical Head," How To Read Character: A New Illustrated Handbook of Phrenology and Physiology  (London: Vickers, 1860) p. 39.

Investigating these seemingly contradictory capacities of Victorian novel form for representing human psychology, this study situates the novel at the center of what it shows to be a productive paradox in modernity’s conception of the human person. In 1859, John Stuart Mill would articulate his era’s ideology of the self-contained, liberal subject by claiming that “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Mill’s words encapsulate the ideal of the modern individual’s self-knowledge, but they also gesture towards a larger project by which mid-nineteenth-century thinkers sought to know and define the physical and mental properties of the human individual in the abstract. This known and knowing self, however, proved to be far from a stable object. As psychology began to find its footing as a discipline it generated accounts of the complexity and heterogeneity of a human consciousness that refused to be pinned down and holistically known. Indeed, one of the foundational problems of nineteenth-century psychology was that objective knowledge of subjective experience appeared an impossible goal; in order to create a knowledge of human consciousness (a psychology), procedures of objective knowledge would need to interfere with the subjective processes of being, living, and experiencing the world.

“Forming People” argues that the Victorian novel was uniquely able to solve this impasse between subjective and objective ways of knowing the self by maximizing what I show to be the dual capacities of form – as verb and as noun – to integrate both perspectives on human psychology. At the beginning of the Victorian era, the novel was already poised as a technology of both formation and world-making to take up the task of experimenting with an increasingly complex and fractured human self in a teaming and expanding social world. As a result of its engagement with psychology, life sciences, and social sciences, I argue, the novel form changed during the period from 1840 to 1890, and it is this formal change and the theories of self it made possible that constitute the core engagement of this study. What Caroline Levine has termed the “long middle” of the Victorian novel allowed for an ongoing formation of character as a plastic form, always changing, always forming and reforming, in response to its immersion in a socially and biologically complex milieu. “Character,” the narrator of George Eliot’s Middlemarch tells us, “is a process and an unfolding,” and Victorian novels experimented with and expanded the capacities of their own formation to imagine characters as ongoing sets of sensory and subjective processes, always changing and always resisting the reification of objective knowledge. From composites of multiple first-person accounts to strange juxtapositions of omniscience and subjective feeling, from gaps and shifts in narrative to the extended form-in-process of the serial novel, Victorian novels by Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, Bram Stoker, and others formally enacted the heterogeneity and changeableness of the characters they created. And in so doing, they contributed to, modified, experimented with, and reshaped for popular consumption psychological, physiological, evolutionary, and sociological theories of the person we find in Victorian scientific texts by the likes of George Combe, William Carpenter, George Henry Lewes, Charles Darwin, and Francis Galton.

This book project builds on a dissertation that was generously supported by an ACLS Mellon Dissertation Completion Fellowship