Victorian Skin: Surface, Self, History

Victorian Skin: Surface, Self, History

by Pamela K. Gilbert


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In Victorian Skin, Pamela K. Gilbert uses literary, philosophical, medical, and scientific discourses about skin to trace the development of a broader discussion of what it meant to be human in the nineteenth century. Where is subjectivity located? How do we communicate with and understand each other's feelings? How does our surface, which contains us and presents us to others, function and what does it signify?

As Gilbert shows, for Victorians, the skin was a text to be read. Nineteenth-century scientific and philosophical perspectives had reconfigured the purpose and meaning of this organ as more than a wrapping and instead a membrane integral to the generation of the self. Victorian writers embraced this complex perspective on skin even as sanitary writings focused on the surface of the body as a dangerous point of contact between self and others.

Drawing on novels and stories by Dickens, Collins, Hardy, and Wilde, among others, along with their French contemporaries and precursors among the eighteenth-century Scottish thinkers and German idealists, Gilbert examines the understandings and representations of skin in four categories: as a surface for the sensing and expressive self; as a permeable boundary; as an alienable substance; and as the site of inherent and inscribed properties. At the same time, Gilbert connects the ways in which Victorians "read" skin to the way in which Victorian readers (and subsequent literary critics) read works of literature and historical events (especially the French Revolution.) From blushing and flaying to scarring and tattooing, Victorian Skin tracks the fraught relationship between ourselves and our skin.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501731594
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Publication date: 03/15/2019
Pages: 450
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Pamela K.Gilbert is Albert Brick Professor at the University of Florida. Herbooks includeDisease, Desire and the Body in Victorian Women's Popular Novels, Mapping the Victorian Social Body, The Citizen's Body,andCholera and Nation.

What People are Saying About This

Kathy Psomiades

"Fascinating and capacious, Victorian Skin invites us to rethink the surface of the body and what's at stake in those discourses—medical, philosophical, political, and literary, that describe the body's relation to the world.The result is a stunning interdisciplinary intervention in Victorian Studies and a new way of reading Victorian realism's investment in the body's surface."

Sander Gilman

"Victorian Skin is the prehistory of our obsession with our visiblebodies. Pamela K.Gilbert’s engagement with the Victorians’ reading of the skin, from their sense of it as an envelope that holds our very self to the tattoos that reveal our inner essence, is sophisticated and extraordinary. A must read for everyone who owns a mirror!"

Talia Schaffer

"Pamela Gilbert has written a magisterial book that covers an encyclopedic range of issues: materialist physiology, affect, somatic diagnoses, Darwinism, classical myth, realism, and Victorian fiction. Victorian Skin, lucidly blending multiple discourses, is an impressively accomplished work."

Kate Flint

"This stunningly original study shows how the permeable human epidermis (blushing, pallid, tattooed, rouged) reflects changing and contested beliefs about identity and interiority, body and feeling. A major contribution to our understanding of 19th century literary realism, Gilbert brilliantly discusses how skin’s mediating properties demand nuanced and historicized methods of what’s literally surface reading."

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