Tag Archives: Victorian studies

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!


Dr Holly Furneaux, ‘Dickens’s Gentle Soldiers: Fiction and Journalism of the Crimean War’

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

Dr Holly Furneaux’s first book, Queer Dickens, has already become legendary within the world of Dickens scholarship. Based on her PhD thesis from her time as a student at Birkbeck, the book is exciting, pertinent, thought-provoking and utterly ground-breaking, and changed the field by redefining the ways we think about Dickens’s representations of sexuality. Having found Dr Furneaux’s work a huge help to my own research on Dickens, I was thus both excited and intrigued to find out more about her latest project.

Moving on from her explorations of male nursing in Queer Dickens, Dr Furneaux’s lecture centered on the figure of the ‘gentle soldier’ within narratives of the Crimean War, and explored why the man of feeling became the particular model for male heroism in this period. Her lecture began with a close reading of ‘The Seven Poor Travellers’, an often-overlooked tale that Dickens wrote for the Christmas edition of his journal Household Words in 1854. Dr Furneaux highlighted Dickens’s attention to the tactile, emotional nuances of the relationship between the two soldiers of this tale, Captain Taunton and the improbably-named Richard Doubledick, and suggested that such a portrayal was a means of thinking through the social and psychological consequences of war. She then moved on to discussing the tale’s subtly reformist agenda, pointing out that by positioning the tale directly after an article critiquing the elitist ranking of military officials, and by portraying the gentle Richard Doubledick’s swift rise to Major, Dickens sought to redefine contemporary notions of honour and heroism within the Victorian armed forces. She then went on to trace the implications of other ‘gentle’ representations in art and literature of the period, and once more their surprising prevalence. I found her research on the troops’ battlefield reading particularly interesting here, as she pointed out both the range and sheer quantities of texts dispatched to the front lines, furthering her argument on the widespread dissemination of these ‘gentle’ ideals.

By drawing on such a broad range of literary, artistic and historical material, Dr Furneaux’s lecture was thus a fascinating insight into a relatively underexplored facet of nineteenth-century history. She made a strong but nuanced argument for the significance of these military men of feeling, highlighting their radical, reformist potential whilst at the same time pointing out that, contrary to her own expectations, much of what she had discovered often worked to promote as well as critique a militarized society. The productive, stimulating nature of her research was further indicated by the number and range of questions at the end of the lecture. I look forward to reading the finished work!