Floating Academy: Earthworms, Thomas Hardy, and Touch as Knowledge

by Tara MacDonald I’m teaching a upper-level undergraduate Victorian literature class this term that focuses on bodies, ghosts, and technologies. Typically in a class like this I would assign a number of Victorian texts as well as critical articles. While I picked some great articles for the students to read alongside Wuthering Heights, Lady Audley’s Secret, A Laodicean, Dracula, The Turn of the Screw, and In the Cage, as I put the syllabus together, I realized that I also wanted my students to be aware of what Victorianists were researching right now. As Moscow, Idaho (my new home) isn’t exactly the center of Victorian studies in the US, I opted to have students listen to lectures recorded for the London Nineteenth-Century Seminar, posted on the website of the Birkbeck Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies. They listened to Sue Zemka’s talk “Prosthetic Hands and Phantom Limbs,” (Thursday 28 May 2015) and Anna Henchman’s “Darwin’s Earthworms and the Sense of Touch” (Wednesday 11 March 2015). Both talks connected to our reading but also presented interesting experiments in listening without any visual cues. We all admitted that it was more challenging to stay focused listening rather than reading. It was also a bit tricky following all of Sue Zemka’s lecture as she used so many images to explain the history of artificial limbs (if I do this next year, I’d show students some of the images she refers to before they listen to the lecture rather than after). Anna Henchman’s talk was also hard to listen to at times because there were a few sound issues and many people coughing in the audience! Despite these challenges, our own experiences nicely related to the talks’ emphasis on senses other than sight. Both focused in the sense of touch in particular; indeed, this seems to be a topic attracting attention from many Victorianists at the moment. Henchman, in particular, argued that Darwin’s work offers a radical challenge to anthropocentrism and to the centrality of vision, which human beings use to orient ourselves in the world. Instead, Darwin, in The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits (1881), depicts how the earthworms must use touch to situate themselves in the world, since they cannot see or hear (although they can sense light and vibrations). Henchman related this to Edwin Abbott’s Flatland (1884), which depicts a two-dimensional world filled with geometric figures who must touch one other to understand their shapes. We listened to Henchamn’s talk just after finishing Thomas Hardy’s A Laodicean, also published in 1881. The novel, a Floating Academy favourite, is suspicious about the sense of sight: it features a romantic heroine whose near uncanny ability to control her emotions means that the hero cannot interpret her affections and, notoriously, a manipulated photograph in which the hero appears to be drunk. Touch, in contrast, serves as an important way of knowing and perceiving the world for these characters The novel opens in this way: The sun blazed down and down, till it was within half-an-hour of its setting; but the sketcher still lingered at his occupation of measuring and copying the chevroned doorway–a bold and quaint example of a transitional style of architecture, which formed the tower entrance to an English village church. The graveyard being quite open on its western side, the tweed-clad figure of the young draughtsman, and the tall mass of antique masonry which rose above him to a battlemented parapet, were fired to a great brightness by the solar rays, that crossed the neighbouring mead like a warp of gold threads, in whose mazes groups of equally lustrous gnats danced and wailed incessantly. He was so absorbed in his pursuit that he did not mark the brilliant chromatic effect of which he composed the central feature, till it was brought home to his intelligence by the warmth of the moulded stonework under his touch when measuring; which led him at length to turn his head and gaze on its cause. George Somerset cannot rely on his sight for his architectural drawings but must physically measure his environment, as well as touch it. And this touch is the only thing that alerts him to the beautiful sunset happening around him. Hardy also focuses on touch during the courtship of George and Paula Power, the difficult-to-read heroine of the novel. Paula, the wealthy daughter of a railway magnate hires George as her architect, hoping that he can help to restore the ancient castle she has inherited. When George desires to make her understand the features of the castle, he boldly uses touch as a way to articulate this knowledge, realizing that sight or speech cannot do the trick:

She listened attentively, then stretched up her own hand to test the cutting as he had done; she was not quite tall enough; she would step upon this piece of wood. Having done so she tried again, and succeeded in putting her finger on the spot. No; she could not understand it through her glove even now. She pulled off her glove, and, her hand resting in the stone channel, her eyes became abstracted in the effort of realization, the ideas derived through her hand passing into her face.

‘No, I am not sure now,’ she said.


All rumination was cut short by an impulse. He seized her forefinger between his own finger and thumb, and drew it along the hollow, saying, ‘That is the curve I mean.’

Somerset’s hand was hot and trembling; Paula’s, on the contrary, was cool and soft as an infant’s.

In class, I joked initially that while the castle facilitates this intimacy, it is also kind of third wheel in this relationship, only to have a student suggest that in fact Somerset himself seems to be the third wheel here! Indeed, the final line of the novel – in which Paula expresses her love for the romantic castle but not precisely her new husband – suggests that she is eager to know both her home and her potential lover, and that it only through the sense of touch that such understanding is possible. And when Paula meets Captain De Stancy, whose ancestors lived in the castle, she feels as though “the historic past had touched her with a yet living hand.” Though not exactly portraying people as earthworms, Hardy’s novel is invested in tactile knowing as an alternative to the other senses. One of Henchman’s examples of touch as an important way of knowing came from Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). I now wonder: was Hardy particularly interested in touch (since he certainly employed rich visual imagery in his novels)? How dis other Victorian novelists use touch as a way of orienting characters within their environments?