Equal Natures

Popular Brain Science and Victorian Women's Writing

By Shalyn Claggett

Subjects: Literary Criticism, Gender Studies, History Of Science, Nineteenth-century Studies
Series: SUNY series, Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century
Hardcover : 9781438493152, 272 pages, May 2023
Paperback : 9781438493169, 272 pages, November 2023

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations

1. Feminist Phrenologists and the Battle for the Brain

2. Of Two Minds: Charlotte and Anne Brontë’s Use of Innate Psychology

3. Harriet Martineau’s Material Rebirth

4. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Physiological Critique of Social Identity

5. George Eliot and Biological Destiny

Afterword Battle for the Brain Redux: Brain Imaging, Neurosexism, and Feminist Science
Works Cited

Explores how Victorian women writers used the popular science of phrenology to challenge socially constructed forms of power.


In Equal Natures, Shalyn Claggett argues that Victorian women writers used scientific understandings of the brain to challenge socially constructed forms of power and gender inequality. Focusing on phrenology—the first science of brain localization and the most popular science in nineteenth-century Britain—Claggett shows how these writers leveraged phrenology's premise that the seat of identity is innate rather than acquired to make new claims about women's intellectual abilities and psychological complexity. Whereas male scientists often used phrenology to support racist and colonialist agendas, in the hands of women, an appeal to biology became a tool of subversion. Through historically contextualized analyses of works by Charlotte and Anne Brontë, Harriet Martineau, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and George Eliot, Equal Natures demonstrates how biology was used to contest conventional understandings of individual identity and interpersonal relations. In doing so, it counters a dominant assumption in feminist theory that essentialism has been the exclusive province of patriarchal values and reactionary political aims.

Shalyn Claggett is Associate Professor of English at Mississippi State University. She is the coeditor (with Lara Karpenko) of Strange Science: Investigating the Limits of Knowledge in the Victorian Age.


"Equal Natures blew me away with its intelligence and its genuinely audacious premise. This is some of the most original thinking I have seen in a long, long time. The caliber of Claggett's scholarship should make this book necessary reading not only for Victorian studies scholars but also for women's and gender studies scholars and historians of medicine." — Carolyn Betensky, author of Feeling for the Poor: Bourgeois Compassion, Social Action, and the Victorian Novel