The Science of Character
Human Objecthood and the Ends of Victorian Realism
In 1843, the Victorian philosopher John Stuart Mill called for the establishment of a new science, “the science of the formation of character.” Although Mill’s proposal failed as a scientific practice, S. Pearl Brilmyer argues that it found its true home in the realist fiction of the period, which employed the literary figure of character to investigate the nature of embodied experience. By bringing to life Mill’s unrealized dream of a science of character, novelists such as George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Olive Schreiner turned to narrative to explore the ways in which traits and behaviors in organisms emerge and develop and how aesthetic features—shapes, colors, and gestures—are given a cultural meaning through certain categories such as race and sex. By engaging with materialist science and philosophy, these authors transformed the notion of character from the liberal notion of the inner truth of an individual into a materially determined figuration that is produced as a result of shifts in the boundaries between the body’s inside and outside. In their hands, Brilmyer argues, literature became a science—not in the sense that its claims were falsifiable or even systematically articulated, but rather in its commitment to uncovering, through a fictional staging of realistic events, the laws governing physical and affective life. The Science of Character redraws late Victorian literary history to show how women and feminist novelists pushed realism to its aesthetic and philosophical limits in the crucial time span between 1870 and 1920.