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Victorian Framings of the Mind: Recent Work on Mid-Nineteenth Century Theories of the Unconscious, Memory, and Emotion

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Abstract

Surveying recent work by literary critics and historians on Victorian psychology, this article begins with an account of the disciplinary and theoretical shifts that have influenced the way psychology as a field has been reconceptualized in the past decades and then focuses on critical studies that address such topics as the role of Victorian periodicals in the emergence of psychology as a discipline and the persistence of Victorian conceptions of the soul alongside increasingly materialist accounts of mind. It is surprising that, given the richness and depth of recent historical work on the psyche in the Victorian period, it has not informed contemporary trauma theory, the genealogical exploration of which seldom pushes back beyond Freud and then only to focus on the medico-legal discourse around the railway accident. The second part of the article acknowledges the salience of trauma studies in literary criticism today but points to the theoretical and historical problems of applying contemporary definitions of trauma to Victorian literature. Research on Victorian architectures of the psyche (in particular, states of altered consciousness, theories of memory, trance, emotion, and involuntary thought or ‘unconscious cerebration’) can offer a fuller account of the emergence of trauma as a concept than critics have previously recognized. A historicist account of the theories of mind on which trauma as a concept is dependent may also elucidate the ideological freight of recurrent, structuring binaries such as agency/passivity in both Victorian texts and contemporary trauma and emotion theory.

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