The ‘Ribbed Liver’ and Victorian Body Parts

This post was contributed by Emma Curry, a PhD student in the Department of English and Humanities, working on Dickens’s representations of objects and body parts and Beatrice Bazell, a second year PhD student, working on representations of the female body in art and literature.

Credit: Barts Pathology Museum

Credit: Barts Pathology Museum

Barts Pathology Museum in West Smithfield is an absolute treasury of fascinating bodily bits. Of all the grisly bodily curiosities on display, however, one of the most compellingly Victorian has to be Specimen N.192: the ‘tight-lacer’s liver’ (right). Caused by the constant wearing of a corset, the liver on display in the museum collection has been deformed to the extent that it has a deep groove within it, caused by the impression of the owner’s ribs.  Further information (and some more rather grisly pictures!) can be found on the exhibit on the museum’s blog.

This liver is a fascinating indication of the extent to which body parts both impressed and were impressed upon in nineteenth-century culture, and provided part of the impetus for the Victorian Body Parts Conference, held on 14 September at Barts Pathology Museum. The conference was organised by Beatrice Bazell and Emma Curry, two PhD students in the English department at Birkbeck, who are both working on representations of the atomized body in Victorian culture. The event sought to uncover the significance of these meticulous approaches to bodily form in the nineteenth century, exploring them from a range of different perspectives, in everything from medical reports to art and film.

The day left no part unprobed: Katharina Boehm (Regensburg) discussed the body of the child as a tool within Victorian medico-psychical discourses; Kate Hill (Lincoln) reflected upon the skull’s potency in nineteenth-century museum culture; and Tiffany Watt-Smith (QMUL) considered the mutual fascination of the theatre and science in analysing Victorian ideas about imitation and mimicry. Ellery Foutch (Courtauld) discussed legendary Victorian bodybuilder Eugen Sandow’s famously muscular arm; Ryan Sweet (Exeter) uncovered the surprisingly frequent appearance of the wooden-leg-as-weapon in sensation fiction; and Ally Crockford (Exeter) discussed the portrayal of diphallicism in medical literature on congenital birth defects.

The event uncovered the burgeoning critical field of body-part-studies in this period, and fostered some fascinating conversations on the various ways in which the Victorians shaped their bodies from within and without. All the while, the tight-laced liver floated serenely on a shelf in the background, a timely reminder of the extent to which these debates remain arresting today. In an age of extreme cosmetic surgery and television programmes that fascinatedly document unusual parts for our entertainment, such as Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies, the parallels with the Victorian period are clear. Here’s hoping, however, that the ‘ribbed liver’ remains a historical curiosity!


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