Sue Hawkins, Kingston University The UKAHN Bulletin
Volume 8 (1) 2020

book coverIt may seem rather odd to choose a book from a series entitled ‘Edinburgh Critical Studies in Victorian Culture’ to review for a nursing history journal. However, apart from the fact it contains a chapter on nursing, it is one of only a few (albeit notable) books to place the history of nursing in a wider context. So often, nursing and nurses are overlooked in work by gender or women’s historians so it is refreshing to see nurses given a chapter to themselves in this book which examines gender and technology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The author sets out to explore ideas of, and the intersections between, gender and technology at the fin de siècle – an era described as ‘an epoch marked by the collision between old and new, the Victorian and the Modern’ when ‘great social changes, coupled with advances in technology and new cultural movements, happened in such a short period of time’. (p 12) Change is happening in all spheres of life, from the emergence of new life-changing technologies to great social changes such as the changing role of women in society. What impact do these technological changes have on women’s lives, how is access determined by gender and does gender affect the development and use of these technologies, are questions the author raises. The author uses the rise of the ‘New Woman’ – a literary phenomenon in which female characters depict the challenge to the old separate spheres ideology as they began to move into new territories – to examine these questions, using examples from ‘New Woman’ literature. Her aim is to ‘study the interrelation between gender and modern technologies’ and demonstrate how that connection is ‘crucial to first-wave feminism’. (p32).

The book is organised into six chapters. The first is a general introduction to the subject where the author discusses the New Woman and technological modernity. It then moves into a number of chapters which focus on specific case studies: the rise of the female typist and women and bicycles feature in chapters 2 and 3, which are followed by two linked chapters under the umbrella title, Medical New Women, examining first nurses and then female doctors. A final chapter focuses on women detectives in New Women literature.

It is important to note that the author’s definition of technology is not necessarily what the average reader would assume (she argues, using Foucauldian tropes, that development of scientific knowledge falls into the category of technology, for instance), but in the first chapter the author provides a fascinating discussion of how histories of technology have been gendered, through the assumption that technology is associated with men, and have in the main ignored female technologies and female inventors. It is a great introduction for readers who have not considered gender before as an influencing factor in how technologies develop and are used; and for those who have not previously come across the concept of the ‘New Woman’. The chapters on female typists and bicyclists are equally illuminating to readers who have not studied gender in the late nineteenth century in any detail, and draw on some fascinating pieces of literature to illuminate the arguments the author is making.

However, the chapter on nursing (and to a lesser extent, female doctors) is less revealing. Most historians of nursing should be familiar with much of the discussion in this chapter, particularly regarding the emergence of the ‘new nurse’, and it is disappointing to see the same old bibliography on nursing history being rolled out, with little reference to newer works on the subject. The case study chosen is also rather weak, the eponymous nurse in Grant Allen’s Hilda Wade appears to do little nursing, and the main thrust of the novel focuses on Hilda as a detective, trying to pin down her father’s murderer, a fellow surgeon for whom she is working as a nurse. The ‘technology’ implicated in this chapter, is not a piece of kit but is instead the ‘technology’ of new medical science. I had been hoping for a discussion of nurses’ use of and access to the new pieces of medical equipment emerging at the end of the century, but this gets little mention. Instead the focus, where it does consider nursing, as opposed to Hilda’s detective skills, is on nurses’ access to medical knowledge.

Despite the somewhat disappointing chapter on nursing though, the book as whole is an inciteful examination of gender and technology at the turn of the century, and a very good introduction to the literature of the ‘New Woman’. As I was reading it I made many notes about the books it mentions which I would love to read myself, including Hilda Wade – she may not seem to represent nursing at the turn of the century, but the story sounds gripping. So, in conclusion, I think this is a book well worth reading by historians of nursing. It helps to contextualise nursing in this period with wider issues in society and culture at the time, something we can sometimes forget to do, and if nothing else it may pique your interest in late Victorian feminist literature.