VICTORIAN SKIN: SURFACE, SELF, HISTORY by Pamela K. Gilbert, Reviewed by Tabitha Sparks

By Pamela K. Gilbert
(Cornell 2019) xi + 434 pp.
Reviewed by Tabitha Sparks on 2019-10-11.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

In The Lampshade (2010), journalist Mark Jacobson traces the origin of the titular object, which was purportedly made from the flayed skin of a Jewish victim of the Nazis. When he consults a spiritualist, she intuits the human source of the lampshade and confirms the Holocaust origin story. This utterly changes Jacobson's relationship to the lampshade, which he now sees as a relic of unimaginable personal trauma and evidence of an ethnic genocide.

None of this would surprise Pamela Gilbert, whose new book probes exactly such ambivalent categories of materiality and symbol, individuality and cultural identity that human skin transmits. Drawing from scientific, literary, medical, and political sources, Gilbert shows how skin and its various functions were interpreted over the course of the British nineteenth century. Cumulatively, she tracks a process by which skin is dissociated from the self.

In the first section, "Surface," Gilbert describes a post-Enlightenment perspective that increasingly recognizes skin as an essential property of selfhood. If prior ages conceived of skin as a shell containing the self, the rise of materialist physiology merged with philosophical notions of consciousness, and the "body became less a container... than a self made of surface interacting with the outer world" (26). According to Gilbert, the primary exponent of this theory is Charles Bell, a Scottish anatomist, neurologist, surgeon and artist. Though Bell's Anatomy of Expression (1806) anticipates Darwin's Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Bell declared that facial musculature was theologically ordered: "divinely designed to allow the fullest range of emotional expression as an index of truth" (38).

The medical and philosophical attention to the surface of the skin in nineteenth-century Britain enabled, and was enabled by, the development of a realist mode in literature and art that endows naturalistic representation with a higher order of authority and aesthetic value. "[T]he novel," writes Gilbert, "...became increasingly obsessed in this period with surfaces... catalogues of objects, visual descriptions, and visual details about characters that were to serve as clues to their interiority" (54). Physiologically-informed writers such as George Eliot, and aesthetes like Ruskin, who eschewed Balzacian gruesomeness, treated the surface of the body as a loaded register of aesthetic creed as well as narratological expediency. Victorian novelists, for instance, transmit fertile plots through reference to a single blush.

In the second section, "Permeability," Gilbert complicates a reading of the skin's surface by way of advancements in sanitary science, particularly those which viewed the skin as a mediating filter between inside and outside -- a delicate mechanism that required careful management of ingress and egress. In the 1860s, the Ladies Sanitary Association published a pamphlet that loudly calls the pores of the skin "DRAINS AND SEWERS WHICH THE GREAT BUILDER, WHO MADE THIS HOUSE FOR YOU TO DWELL IN, HAS FURNISHED for carrying waste matter away from it..." (emphasis original) (110). In light of this metaphor, skin lesions and eruptions could signal failures of self-regulation, a failing that syphilitic skin both symbolizes and realizes.

In closing this section with a fascinating analysis of A Tale of Two Cities, Gilbert shows how Dickens turns skin into a capacious cultural index. The characters of the old regime in the novel, for instance, lack sympathy and expression because, Gilbert argues, they preferred "very mannered makeup, especially the use of very bright rouge (fard), which obscured the normal rubor and pallor that...were so much prized as indices of true expression and sources of sympathetic recognition" (169). Cosmetic fashion blocks the "natural" ability of the skin to transmit empathy or compassion, and so externalizes the repression associated with the aristocratic order.

The French Revolution and its traumatic imprint on skin, both real and symbolic, constitute much of the third section of the book. While skin can be "alienated" from the body through flaying, a practice associated with the Terror and confirmed by its own grisly evidence, Gilbert argues that even skin severed from the self remains haunted by its human incarnation (as Mark Jacobson found with his lampshade). Like skulls, hair, or teeth, skin falls "in the category of body parts that are also 'things' -- subject to conversion into memento, souvenir, or fetish" (181), which recalls Freud's description of the uncanny mood evoked by objects neither fully animate nor inanimate. Gilbert finds this transgression of categories (dead/alive, human/thing) compellingly exemplified in Wilkie Collins's The Law and the Lady (1875). Legless but bound to a wheelchair, Miserrimus Dexter embodies categorical violation: he is at once man and machine, male and female, seer and clown. As Gilbert explains, he also appropriates false identities, epitomized by his prized possession of the fetish-like "skin of a Marquis" (desideratum of the Revolution). Since Dexter has no historical or devotional connection to the Revolution (or the Marquis), the skin is not a relic but a souvenir he buys -- and so chillingly overdetermined by the labor theory of value that underwrites this transaction. Besides scrutinizing Collins's use of flayed skin in his novel, Gilbert also considers how the act of flaying itself is portrayed in this period. In particular, she writes, the (re)emergence of Apollo's flaying of Marsysas in fin-de-siecle art and literature implicates the "Romantic revival of revaluations of defiant, Faustian figures" (242).

Having begun with the early nineteenth century, with post-Enlightenment theories that make skin essential to the self, Gilbert ends by examining "Inscriptions," the estranging practices of racial and physiognomic classifications. After emerging by the mid-century, racial "science" advanced in lockstep with the colonial politics that enabled a moral hierarchy of skin color. Given the geopolitical power inscribed in white domination of black races, Gilbert wonders "where were black skins in the nineteenth-century British novel, and why do literary critics labor with such energy to find them metonymically in ghosts, Irish people, and all manner of other characters?" While skin color is a "dominant trope in visual culture," she observes, it is "mostly present through indirection in the novel" (290). We unfurl our usual roster of outcasts-- Bertha Mason, Ezra Jennings, Heathcliff, Dinah Craik's "Half-Caste" Zillah Le Poer -- but these characters are of mixed race or unidentifiable origin, which impedes their belonging. Black skin, Gilbert finds, comes late to nineteenth-century fiction. "It is largely towards the end of the century and in fictions set in the colonies," she writes, "that race and blackness explicitly enter the fictional text in tandem" (295). By the latter part of the century, science sought reliable indicators of racial but also moral identity, with an emphasis on signs that could be "objective." A woman's virtue, for instance, was no longer expressed by the telltale blush (an indicator of a particular emotion) but rather by the pallor of her skin, which could geographically distinguish her from those of darker Southern races (283) as well as negating any familial traces of miscegenation.

Meanwhile, a materialist shift towards objective differences endowed "inscriptions" like scars and tattoos with experiential meaning. Their relation to selfhood drastically revises the fusion of self and skin that Gilbert finds in early nineteenth-century literature and science. If scars and tattoos are acts of self-realization, Gilbert says, they are not confirmations of selfhood but rather announcements of its provisionality. Without inscription, skin is an unwritten text about the self and so no longer the thing itself.

The examples noted here are a fraction of those presented in this book. Besides the richness of her scholarship, Gilbert's analysis of the history and representation of the skin in relation to realism ultimately gives way to texts that treat skin as a detachable signifier. Gilbert juxtaposes original literary readings with medical theory, cultural history, and many accounts that defy categorization, including one involving Xavier Bichat's singular experiment with his own flatula; you'll have to read it for yourself. Amidst many current disciplinary tilts towards materialist logic (the 'neuro novel,' narratology's cognitive turn, text mining), Skin reminds us that literature's trade in the ineffable arbitrates even the most tactile of subjects.

Tabitha Sparks is Associate Professor of English and Associate Dean, Research and Graduate Studies in the Faculty of Arts at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.

Leave a comment on Tabitha Sparks's review.


 Subscribe to RSS feed