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Heart and Science: A Story of the Present Time (1883)

by Wilkie Collins

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1083255,156 (3.71)3
Classic Literature. Fiction. HTML:

Is it morally permissible to conduct often-painful experiments on innocent animals? That contentious debate is still going on today, but it has its roots in the Victorian era, when the issue of 'vivisection' had only recently made its way into the public discourse. In Heart and Science, self-professed animal lover Wilkie Collins uses fiction to mount a compelling attack on animal experimentation. This thought-provoking and entertaining novel is a worthy read.

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"And what did Mr. A. do next?" he [Dr. Benjulia] repeated. "He put his hand in his pocket-- he gave Miss B. a month's wages-- and he turned her out of the house. You impudent hussy, you have delayed my dinner, spoilt my mutton, and hugged me round the neck! There is your money. Go."
     With glaring eyes and gaping mouth, the cook stood looking at him, like a woman struck to stone. In a moment more, the rage burst out of her in a furious scream. She turned to the table, and snatched up a knife. Benjulia wrenched it from her hand, and dropped back into his chair completely overpowered by the success of his little joke. He did what he had never done within the memory of his oldest friend-- he burst out laughing. "This
has been a holiday!" he said. "Why haven't I got somebody with me to enjoy it?" (216)

What everyone, even the defenders of this much-maligned later novel from Collins, feels compelled to talk about is its role as an anti-vivisectionist work; they especially like to focus on Dr. Benjulia, the creepy vivisection-practicing anatomist. But Benjulia and vivisection only occupy a scant few chapters of the totality of Heart and Science. They are but single examples of the novel's larger discomfort with science in general. Heart and Science is afraid of the way the scientist looks at people, fearing that her scientific training makes her see people as objects for her use in experiments.

Yes, I said "her"-- Heart and Science is a positive anomaly in the Victorian period, a novel that features a woman scientist. Mrs. Gallilee is a fascinating character, a villain through and through, as she attempts to steal the inheritance that is due her niece for herself and her daughters. But like in Collins's The Woman in White, the villain is more interesting than the heroes; this novel is particularly bad, as Ovid Vere and Carmina Graywell are "sympathetic" to the point of paralysis and insipidness. But Mrs. Gallilee-- Mrs. Gallilee is utterly fascinating to read about (as is Dr. Benjulia). To a modern reader, most of Collins's critiques of the scientist's vision fall flat, so one is left with a very interesting character. Maybe a Lex Luthor for her time? (I suspect many Victorian readers would have found the critiques ridiculous, too. On the other hand, many modern feminist philosophers of science probably agree with Collins, which is all the more worrying.)

The thing that Collins seems unable to bring himself to admit is that Mrs. Gallilee is actually the smartest person in the novel. For all that the narrator comments that she doesn't understand human emotions, she actually proves more capable of recognizing people's emotional states than anyone else; she figures out who is in love with who when no one else has noticed, and she uses this knowledge to manipulate people, often successfully. (She grows less successful as the novel goes on though, for reasons I can't quite pin down, but think have to do with the people she's manipulating acting less selfishly.)

She also is the only character with any appreciation for something beyond her immediate circumstances; Ovid and Carmina (and the author, implicitly) sneer at her for her interest in the upper atmosphere, dinosaurs, and more, but I was on her side in those exchanges. What do they have that's more interesting than dinosaurs? Collins never shows me anything. Mrs. Gallilee's position reminds me a lot of John Tyndall's transcendental materialism, which was often attacked by people who didn't understand it. (Tyndall gave his famous Belfast Address in 1874, less than a decade before Heart and Science.) But I'd rather look on the universe with breathless awe like Tyndall than stay closeminded like Ovid and Carmina. Heart and Science is a fascinating look at late Victorian attitudes toward science, but you shouldn't believe a word of it.

added April 2018:
I reread this book in preparation for writing an article on it.* Like my review of six years ago, my article focuses on Mrs. Maria Gallilee, the under-discussed amateur female scientist at the center of the novel, so here I want to write for a moment about Dr. Nathan Benjulia, the vivisectionist who mostly lurks at the margins of the novel, but occasionally (as in the above passage) comes into focus. Like a lot of Victorian novelists, Wilkie Collins makes a connection between vivisection and cruelty to women, though what Benjulia has done here to his cook is much less bad than the spousal abuse in The Beth Book and Lynton Abbott's Children. Benjulia's cook is under the impression that Benjulia is in love with her; this is primarily because she's been reading Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, where (I am given to understand, having not read it myself), Pamela is a cook who marries her employer. Benjulia encourages this delusion until it reaches its climax with her "thr[owing] her arms around the doctor's neck," leading to the scene above.

I find this fascinating for a couple reasons. One is obvious: like a lot of scientists in literature, Benjulia's scientific training renders him morally deficient. Experimenting physically on live animals means that he has no qualms about experimenting emotionally on live humans. Science, thus leads to moral bankruptcy.

Another is, I think, less obvious. The novel, you might guess from the title, sets up an opposition between science and "heart": the ability to experience sympathy, which all of the novel's virtuous characters possess, sometimes to paralyzing degrees (there's a good lawyer, for example, who can't countenance cutting a flower's stem, and at one point the book's hero is aghast when someone steps on a beetle). And like so many Victorian novels, Heart and Science itself is meant to train the reader in sympathy and morality: Collins wrote it to "plead[ ] the cause of the harmless and affectionate beings of God's creation" (38). But though the novel is definitely an anti-science polemic at times (at least, as regards a certain form of 1880s science; Collins's narrator yearns for the bygone days of Faraday), it is somewhat more complicated on where "heart" might originate from. You might get it from reading this novel, but some novels will in fact lead you astray. Benjulia's cook's reading habits have given her a less accurate perception of the world than Benjulia's scientific training has given him, even though in other parts of the novel we are shown the inferiority of scientific sight compared to what we might call sympathetic sight.

Benjulia doesn't have anyone to laugh with, as he bemoans in this passage, and partially that's to blame on the kind of science he practices: Benjulia is so obsessed with professional success (as opposed to the advancement of knowledge) that he avoids society as much as possible, worried that one slip could reveal his plan of research to someone else and allow them to beat him to his hoped-for discovery in the treatment of brain disease. But there is someone who does laugh with Benjulia at this incident. I mean, I don't know that I laughed aloud on reading this passage, but I was amused. The reader here is more on the side of Benjulia than the caricature-esque character of the cook, and I'm not sure what to make of that (it might just mean that to Wilkie Collins a good joke is a good joke, even if it disrupts your novel's carefully constructed moral universe), but it indicates that despite its obviously polemical qualities, despite its title, there are times Heart and Science resists easy dualities.

* The article was supposed to be out by now, but as these things so often go, it's still forthcoming.
1 vote Stevil2001 | Dec 21, 2011 |
Historically and perhaps politically interesting, this late Collins novel is also fairly predictable, and less "tight" than his earlier masterworks. The sensation didn't turn out to be quite as sensational as the secrets of Collins's "The Woman in White" or "Armadale," but the focus on the sinister possibilities of science probably tells us more about everyday Victorians' fears and hangups than the incredible tales of adultery, bigamy, poisoning, will fraud, infant swapping, &c. Overall this was a quick and enjoyable read, though obviously a minor work by this author. ( )
  sansmerci | Jan 5, 2010 |
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Classic Literature. Fiction. HTML:

Is it morally permissible to conduct often-painful experiments on innocent animals? That contentious debate is still going on today, but it has its roots in the Victorian era, when the issue of 'vivisection' had only recently made its way into the public discourse. In Heart and Science, self-professed animal lover Wilkie Collins uses fiction to mount a compelling attack on animal experimentation. This thought-provoking and entertaining novel is a worthy read.

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