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 scientific practice, S. Pearl Brilmyer maintains that it found its true home in realist fiction of the period, which employed the literary figure of character to investigate the nature of embodied experience. 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 how traits and behaviours in organisms emerge and develop, and how aesthetic features — shapes, colours, and gestures — come to take on cultural meaning through certain categories, such as race and sex. Engaged with materialist science and philosophy, these authors transformed character from the liberal notion of the inner truth of an individual into a materially determined figuration produced through 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 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 span between 1870 and 1920.

296 pages | 5 halftones | 6 x 9
ISBN-13: ‎ 978-0226815787

Table of Contents

List of Figures

Introduction: Ethology, or the Science of Character
— As Much an External Thing as a Tree or a Rock
— A Power of Observation Informed by a Living Heart; or Involuntary, Palpitating
— Inconsistency and Formlessness

Chapter 1: Plasticity, Form, and the Physics of Character in Eliot’s Middlemarch
— Plastic Forms
— Irregular Solids, Viscous Fluids

Chapter 2: Sensing Character in Impressions of Theophrastus Such
— Theophrastus Who?
— Descriptive Minutiae
— To Sketch a Species
— The Natural History of Human Life
— After the Human

Chapter 3: The Racialization of Surface in Hardy’s Sketch of Temperament and Hereditary Science
— The Color of Heredity
— On the Whiteness of the Ground
— Accretions of Character

Chapter 4: Schopenhauer and the Determination of Women’s Character
— An English Start
— The Character of the Will
— Impulsive Aesthetics

Chapter 5: The Intimate Pulse of Reality; or, Schreiner’s Ethological Realism
— The Ethics of Nature
— The Ethics of Description
— The Ethics of Force

Coda: Spontaneous Generations of Character between Realism and Modernism