‘Literature and Medicine in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press: Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1817-1858’ reviewed by Dr Antje Dallmann

‘Literature and Medicine in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press: Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1817-1858’ by Megan Coyer (Edinburgh University Press, 2016).

In Literature and Medicine in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press: Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1817-1858, Megan Coyer contributes important insights into the study of the literary magazine Blackwood’s, of nineteenth-century British literary periodicals more broadly, and of British Romanticism. Her literary and historical analysis illustrates the interaction and cross-disciplinary conversation between early-nineteenth-century literature and medicine, in what she terms “medico-literary” writing. Consisting of an introduction, five main chapters and a coda, this dense, well-written and engaging study traces how Blackwood’s agenda was framed by topics and contributors that medicalized the magazine’s literary and political debates. Blackwood’s concurrently developed a distinctive perspective of what the author describes as ‘recuperative medical humanism’ (p. 204) in the first half of the nineteenth century, which — ‘dually problematic and productive’ (p. 215) — ‘bridged not only the “literary” and the “medical” but also popular and professional spheres’ (p. 16), insisting on the cultural figure of the physician as a ‘man of feeling’. This book also provides an exemplary reading of the construction of Romantic-era medicine within popular medical and literary discourses as well as of its cultural work in nineteenth-century Britain.

2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the launch of the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine, which became one of the most influential British literary periodicals of the nineteenth century. Later re-named Blackwood’s Magazine, and often simply referred to as Maga, the magazine endorsed conservative Tory politics (in contrast to the Whig-supporting Edinburgh Review). At the same time, Blackwood’s published innovative literary criticism alongside the work of the most renowned writers of its time, including Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Joseph Conrad.

Coyer demonstrates how medicine-related subjects and medically-trained contributors were crucial to Blackwood’s reputation; which was published in Edinburgh — one of the leading centres of nineteenth-century medicine. Literature and Medicine in Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press does not, however, intend to provide a history of the Edinburgh School of Medicine: Instead, it examines how medicine offered a discursive frame for economic and political analyses and for literary practices. While the nineteenth century was marked by the professionalization of — and the differentiation between — the discourses of literature and medicine, Blackwood’s published popular and literary medical writing that defied the emerging separation between these “two cultures” in favour of medical figures that are characterized by the embodiment of feeling and reason, and of a counter-discourse of Romantic medical humanism (p. 16).

In Chapter One (Medical Discourse and Ideology in the Edinburgh Review), Coyer sets the scene for ensuing discussions by introducing the scope and agenda of the Edinburgh Review, which was Blackwood’s ‘primary ideological competitor’ (p. 22). Moving away from specific medical content, the Edinburgh Review introduced new formats for the engagement with medical culture and for its polemical appropriation, which were used, but also transformed by Blackwood’s.

The tale of terror, addressed in Chapter Two as a particularly Blackwoodian genre, captures the contemporary cultural anxiety and ambivalence about the professionalization and scientification of medicine, combining conventions of the Gothic and of sensational crime narratives with the tradition of the medical case history. Yet the tale of terror extends substantially the formal language in which medical subject matter was traditionally presented, particularly by introducing a first-person autodiegetic narrator (p. 43). Chapter Three examines the career of David Macbeth Moir, a medical practitioner in provincial Musselburgh as well as a prolific writer and poet who published in Blackwood’s under the pen name “Delta.” As Coyer explains, literary medical men enjoyed a high status in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Scottish culture (p. 91). However, combining medical practice with literary ambitions increasingly fell into disrepute with an elite public during the nineteenth century, largely due to the modernising and professionalising course of medicine. Moir/Delta’s writing however exemplifies Blackwood’s persistent opposition to the emerging separation of science and medicine from letters and religion. His sympathetic literary medical practitioner offers a Romantic alternative to the emerging figure of the distanced modern physician as man of science, but also as a cultural figure by ‘bridg[ing the gap] between Georgian satire and Victorian idealisation’ (p. 115).

Samuel Warren’s Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician is the focus of Chapter Four, and Coyer shows how Warren’s narrative constructs a ‘professional medical man of feeling’ (p. 126) — a character that effectively combines the traits of the sympathetic medical practitioner with those of a modern professional physician. Referencing again the genre of the literary case history, Warren’s series initiated a generic model that ‘hinged upon the relationship between medical, moral and narrative authority’ (p. 159) and that ‘maintained its humanist potential’ (p. 160).

Chapter Five examines The Rise of Public Health in the Popular Press, analysing W.P. Alison’s, Robert Gooch’s, and Robert Ferguson’s contributions to Public Health debates in Blackwood’s as expressions of a Romantic humanistic ‘political medicine’ (p. 173). This ideal was also shaped by the Blackwoodian political as well as formal agenda and it constructed political medicine as ‘recuperative intervention.’ In more general terms, these contributions promoted a nineteenth-century ‘medical humanism’ (p. 195).

Coyer provides very important new observations and interpretations that substantially broaden the understanding of the mutually constitutive interrelation between medicine and literature and that are by no means valid only for Blackwood’s early-nineteenth-century Edinburgh. ‘The period of Romantic medicine,’ literary scholar Hermione de Almeida points out, ‘has existed as a hiatus in the history of science. […] Romantic medicine has been [broadly] ignored’ (p. 3). The relation between medical and literary practices and discourses in the first part of the nineteenth century has so far received far too little scholarly attention. Literature and Medicine in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press sharpens the awareness of how different realist and non-realist literary modes and genres, inspired by a Romantic literary agenda, contributed to shaping an authoritative medical figure as a ‘professional man of feeling’, a character that cannot be adequately described by the analytic model of medical realism (see, for instance, Lawrence Rothfield and, more recently, Meegan Kennedy). A slightly more detailed discussion of the magazine’s history, its audience, and a contextualization within the broader development of medico-literary discourses would have been helpful for scholars from outside the field of British periodical studies.

Reviewed by Antje Dallmann, who received her PhD in American Studies in 2007 and who has recently finished her post-doctoral project “Medi(c)ated Authority: Gender, Whiteness, and Medical Romance in North America, 1850-1900” at Humboldt-University Berlin.

Correspondence to Dr Antje Dallmann.

Works Cited:

De Almeida, Hermione. 1991. Romantic medicine and John Keats. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kennedy, Meegan. 2010. Revising the clinic: Vision and representation in Victorian medical narrative and the novel. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Rothfield, Lawrence. 1992. Vital signs: Medical realism in nineteenth-century fiction. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

 

 

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