For at least the last half-century, scholars have attempted to find traces of Victorian theories of mind and brain in the period's imaginative literature. Starting with Sally Shuttleworth’s pioneering George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science (1984), Victorianists have tracked the period's psychological theories through the works of a wide range of Victorian writers. A recent addition to this interesting sub-field is Gretchen Braun’s Narrating Trauma: Victorian Novels and Modern Stress Disorders, which endeavors to show how characters in several Victorian novels display behaviors and report inner states consistent with modern notions of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Following an introduction in which she explains her themes and approach, Braun surveys Victorian nervous disorders and attempts to relate them to “contemporary trauma studies" (20). The difficulties begin here. “Trauma studies" relies on relatively recent psychiatric, psychological, and neuroscientific research, notably by Bessel van der Kolk, who has popularized an influential trauma theory in his bestselling The Body Keeps the Score (2014). Psychologists now recognize a range of experiences that can give rise to PTSD, but, as with the traditional, narrower understanding of PTSD as a consequence of battlefield experience, this kind of psychological suffering centers on memory. Memories of traumatic experiences differ in a key way from other kinds of memories because traumatic memories intrude on one’s present consciousness. The traumatic experience returns not as a memory but as an overwhelming psychological and physiological experience. One does not remember a trauma so much as relive it. A person gripped by a traumatic memory has been thrust into a special psychological state, described by Braun as “the physiological experience of being disconnected from social networks, normative emotional responses, and even sensory experience in the wake of a distressing or threatening shock" (3).

Van der Kolk’s findings have been influential, but are they durable? Contemporary psychiatric nosology seems a fragile basis on which to build an argument about fictional Victorians. Hysteria was once a diagnosis to take seriously; now it’s a slur or a punchline. But even if van der Kolk and his colleagues have durably established a clinical picture for post-traumatic stress, how could Victorian novelists, who had neither modern concepts nor extensive clinical experience to draw upon, possibly capture such elusive and fugitive states?

Braun herself admits the anachronism of her argument, citing Jill Matus' finding that the modern idea of trauma was practically unknown to Victorians. The first instance of “trauma" in English comes in 1894 (Matus 142), eighteen years after publication of Daniel Deronda (1876), chronologically the latest but one of Braun’s handful of exemplary texts. These include Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895) as well as several, much earlier works: Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853), Charles Dickens Great Expectations (1861), Wilkie CollinsNo Name (1862), and two mid-Victorian novellas by Emily Jolly. In Victorian consulting rooms, patients exhibiting nervous symptoms were diagnosed with “neurasthenia," “railway spine," “nervous exhaustion," “mental paralysis," nonspecific “nerves," and, of course, hysteria. As Braun herself shows in her contextualizations, Victorian psychologists either failed to register trauma symptoms or made etiological sense of them in their own ways, with reference to phrenology, physiology, or moral philosophy.

Of course, Victorians were as prone to being traumatized by adversity as any person living before or since, and Victorian novelists were no more blind to the effects of such traumas than anyone else. Indeed, given the psychological realism of many Victorian novels, we might expect their authors to be especially acute observers of trauma’s effects even if they used different words to describe them. Following Matus, Braun suggests that these novelists were in the vanguard in representing experiences of characters in extremis: “Advances in the science of the mind offered Victorian novelists a vocabulary and a logic for adapting accepted narratives of self-development to accommodate marginalized perspectives," that is, on the margins of experience that contemporary psychology could encompass. These novelists, she writes, “some quite versed in nascent psychiatry, contributed to scientific debates about cognition and psychic injury and [...] forwarded understanding of what we now term ‘psychic trauma’" including “emotional patterns that align with current clinical accounts of post-traumatic stress disorder" (3).

At this point I expected a certain kind of book, one in which I followed Braun into imaginary consulting rooms populated with the troubled protagonists of Victorian novels, where Braun would point out their symptoms of PTSD. But to read novels as if they were psychiatric case studies does an injustice to clinical psychology and the emphatically non-literary suffering it aims to alleviate, as well as to literary scholarship which, to remain viable, must do more than ape clinicians when confronted with the problems of meaning and purpose enduringly posed by literature.

Reading Braun and other Victorianists working at the nexus of literature and psychology can make it easy to forget that George Eliot was a far better satirist than psychologist. Is there no scene more delicious in Daniel Deronda than the one in which Lydia Glasher, spurned secret lover of rich and caddish Grandcourt, plots to appear repeatedly with their illegitimate son, Henleigh, in the park where Gwendolen Harleth—Grandcourt’s new wife and, not unrelatedly, Lydia’s ex-friend—takes her daily horseback ride? Having reluctantly swallowed her “helpless wrath," Lydia nevertheless “could not let her discretion go entirely without the reward of making a Medusa-apparition before Gwendolen," her “vindictiveness and jealousy finding relief in an outlet of venom." But then, just as we are expecting Gwendolyn’s horrified reaction, Eliot dips into the consciousness of Lydia, imagining her asking archly, rhetorically, with feigned innocence, “Why should she not take little Henleigh into the park?" (668; my emphasis)

Of course, this scene contains psychic pain aplenty. Though she is puffed up by spite, Lydia is clearly miserable, and Gwendolyn seems equally undone, wishing to be free of her new marriage no matter the cost. It is just here that Eliot winks. “What release," Gwendolen wonders wildly, “but death." Death! Well—not her death, for she is “not a woman who could easily think of her own death." Rather, “[i]t seemed more possible that Grandcourt should die," but then this angry thought “turned as with a dream-change into the terror that she should die with his throttling fingers on her neck" (669; my emphasis). In the blink of an eye, the woman who “does not easily think of her own death" becomes a woman who does think of exactly that, and, not coincidentally, one who also dreams of the deaths of others. As a little object lesson on the dangers of bloody-mindedness, this scene is funny, though I suppose the humor might be hard to acknowledge, given the relational violence that suffuses the whole Grandcourt-Harleth-Glasher ménage. That violence certainly feeds Gwendolen’s psychological lability: she whipsaws emotionally through the first months of her marriage. But this lability is also narratively necessary, as Eliot is preparing the reader for the moment when Grandcourt, hoist on the boom of his sailboat’s mast, is thrown into the sea off the Paduan coast and must beg Gwendolen, still on deck, to toss him a rope. She dithers, he drowns, and Gwendolen's guilt is such that she flees into the understanding presence of an old friend, the novel’s eponymous hero, who conveniently happens to be in town. This coincidence sets up the novel’s climatic scene, in which Daniel encourages her to accept responsibility for her situation and try to do better going forward. At this point Eliot needs Gwendolen completely overwrought, so that when Daniel talks her down, it’s less a chat than a rescue.

What I'm saying is: We read for more than pathography. And in fact Braun is not really saying that Victorian novelists are best understood as psychologists of make-believe patients. What she is saying, though, is hard to figure out. Rather than reading Victorian novels in order to find characters suffering from undiagnosed PTSD, Braun intends merely to discover how those novels provided “language to describe the affective, emotional, and physiological experiences of overwhelming loss or threat" and, in so doing, write a “prehistory" of post-traumatic stress disorder. “Nervous disorders not only provided Victorian physicians with medical explanations of ambiguously psychic and somatic suffering," she writes, “but also generated cultural and literary language for harm materially felt yet difficult to define" (3-4).

Unfortunately the evanescence of this harm also makes it hard for Braun to make her case. Returning to Deronda: Gwendolen suffers emotional disturbances, to be sure. She is prone to fits of trembling, weakness, agitation, mutism, and despair; in her lowest moment, she sinks to her knees and lapses into “hysterical weeping" (767). But at other moments she is decisive and scheming, hardly the haunted person one associates with PTSD. She has moments of insight too, as when she recognizes the great extent to which she has benefited from knowing Deronda (841). Braun sees Gwendolen’s disappearance for scores of pages after Grandcourt’s death as dispositive evidence of a trauma response (140-41); but then, the novel’s braided structure requires Gwendolen to be frequently offstage, and she’s not the focus in any case. The novel is called Daniel Deronda, not Gwendolen Harleth.

Braun has a pervasive last-mile problem: she tends to shut down her argument just when she should be firing on all thrusters. Take Annie, the heroine of Emily Jolly’s A Wife’s Story, who suffers a variety of nervous symptoms in response to her dull-witted husband’s failure to recognize the fineness of her sensibility. As Braun rightly points out, Annie herself sees her difficulties as sociopolitical, not psychological; her problem is patriarchy, her story “a tale of the erasure of individual female identity within patriarchal marriage" (99). Well and good—but as this connection has already been explored by scholars who see her struggle in sociopolitical terms, it's hard to say what's new here. Braun’s discussion of Villette is similarly truncated. While Lucy Snowe’s outward behavior—her reticence and evasions—may well be “the manifestation of unbearable psychic pain" (52), Brontë, on Braun’s view, combines a contemporary “language of the nerves" with phrenological discourse to make sense of Lucy’s suffering. Brontë has hidden Lucy’s wounds in ways that suggest the presence of a specifically Victorian idea of psychology and physiology productive, as Matus has argued, of “the psychic space of aftermath" (147). Central to this “aftermath" is an idea not of trauma but of conscience. In this way Lucy’s psychology is linked, as scholars from Shuttleworth to Matus have shown time and again, to psychological ideas in wider circulation. Something similar, of course, is at work in Deronda. Gwendolen Harleth is overwhelmed not by traumatic memory but by her guilty conscience. Eliot takes special interest in showing how Lydia Glasher continually and knowingly pricks that conscience, as the delicious scene with “little Henleigh" affirms. If Eliot had merely aimed to foreground Gwendolen’s trauma, there would have been no narrative need for this marvelous scene—and plenty of reasons to avoid writing it with such evident glee.

Narrating Trauma is a stimulating analysis, but its weaknesses of argument and evidence ultimately render it unconvincing. That said, Braun is clearly onto something. Gwendolen Harleth and Lucy Snowe do behave in ways that don’t quite cohere with Victorian psychological paradigms; and it is certainly true, as Braun points out, that the heroine of Jolly’s Witch-Hampton Hall, who is a rape survivor, both benefits from social support and is devastated by its withdrawal, two developments that are consistent with our modern understanding of rape’s psychological aftermath and the kinds of interventions that are helpful. That there is a gendered aspect to all of this also seems correct, as Braun suggests in her discussions of the masculine versions of the emotionally distressed female characters in her other chapters. It is unfortunate that Braun looked to contemporary psychology for her analytic framework. Even if Victorians themselves could barely recognize such fleeting interior states, our popular psychology of trauma, at least as Braun presents it, seems equally inadequate for making sense of Victorian novelists’ approaches to the representation of memory and its disturbance.

Links to Related Material


[Book under review]. Braun, Gretchen. Narrating Trauma: Victorian Novels and Modern Stress Disorders. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2022.

Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda. 1876. London: Penguin, 1986.

Matus, Jill. Shock, Memory and the Unconscious in Victorian Fiction. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Shuttleworth, Sally. George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science: The Make-Believe of a Beginning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Created 4 February 2024