You are here

Reading with the Senses in Victorian Literature and Science

David Sweeney Coombs

BUY Cloth · 240 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813943428 · $39.50 · Nov 2019
BUY Ebook · 240 pp. · ISBN 9780813943435 · $39.50 · Nov 2019

The nineteenth-century sciences cleaved sensory experience into two separate realms: the bodily physics of sensation and the mental activity of perception. This division into two discrete categories was foundational to Victorian physics, physiology, and experimental psychology. As David Sweeney Coombs reveals, however, it was equally important to Victorian novelists, aesthetes, and critics, for whom the distinction between sensation and perception promised the key to understanding literature’s seemingly magical power to conjure up tastes, sights, touches, and sounds from the austere medium of print. In Victorian literature, science, and philosophy, the parallel between reading and perceiving gave rise to momentous debates about description as a mode of knowledge as well as how, and even whether, reading about the world differs from experiencing it firsthand.

Examining novels and art criticism by George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Vernon Lee, and Walter Pater alongside scientific works by Hermann von Helmholtz, William James, and others, this book shows how Victorian literature offers us ways not just to touch but to grapple with the material realities that Clifford Geertz called the "hard surfaces of life."


"Written in a lucid, engaging style, this eloquent and deeply researched study demonstrates a powerful grasp of the role nineteenth-century language philosophy and physiology played in shaping how literature and art criticism considered their basic materials--language, art, and perception."

—Devin Griffiths, University of Southern California, author of The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature between the Darwins

Excellently written and impressively researched, this book makes a singular contribution to intellectual history. Coombs is a superb explicator of Victorian science’s tangled debates, and he makes them feel urgent—not least by showing that they provide a crucial genealogy for our current debates over literary critical method.

David Kurnick, Rutgers University, author of Empty Houses: Theatrical Failure and the Novel

Perception, bodily or imaginative, empirical or symbolic, forms the central preoccupation in this study of ways of knowing in the interplay of Victorian science, philosophy, art, and literature.... Building on the critical efforts of Nicholas Dames, Benjamin Morgan, Henry James, Georg Lukács, Elaine Auyoung, Mary Favret, John Stuart Mill, et al., Coombs interrogates works by George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Vernon Lee, and Walter Pater in terms of how Victorian writers "came to understand reading and perception as experiences of irreducible complexity."... Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty.


About the Author(s): 

David Sweeney Coombs is Assistant Professor of English at Clemson University.

Interested in this topic?
Stay updated with our newsletters:

Related Books