University of Florida Homepage

Under the Skin

UF English Professor Receives Guggenheim Fellowship

“She had to save face.” “He got under my skin.” These expressions may seem common now, but before the 19th century, people had a very different view of how humans lived in their bodies. UF English professor Pamela K. Gilbert is exploring the Victorian-era notions of skin as a reflection of people’s fundamental changes in worldview in this period of social upheaval. She has been awarded a 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship to finish her book, Victorian Skin: Surface, Subjectivity, Affect.

Although skin is a focus of many contemporary issues, from race relations to self-image, skin wasn’t always the marker of one’s identity that it is today. Gilbert notes that it was in the Victorian era that people began to perceive the self as a surface phenomenon: anyone could scrutinize another’s appearance and know their identity and emotions, and yet their skin, a permeable membrane, might be insufficient to protect them or hold them together. In literature, this is shown through the realist mode: for example, a third-person novel that describes the characters’ appearances in great detail and focuses on the lives of “normal” people.

By studying works from writers such as Dickens, Carlyle, and Wilde, among many other authors who wrote about the French revolution, the Franklin expedition, and other tales of human morality and mortality, Gilbert has found that the Victorian era produced an emphasis on the surface of human bodies: the skin. This period of history also expanded scientific knowledge of human anatomy and DNA; surgery advanced in this period, as did psychology and dermatology. In portraying often-traumatic historical changes, Victorian literature often uses “narratives of flaying,” says Gilbert. An ancient form of execution that was rumored to have reemerged during the French Revolution, flaying also appeared in retellings of myths and, more literally, in the popularity of books bound in human flesh during this period.

portrait of Pamela Gilbert Pamela Gilbert

Gilbert has found that the Victorian era produced an emphasis on the surface of human bodies: the skin.

A self-described “archive rat,” Gilbert is the Albert Brick Professor in the Department of English. Her research interests include the Victorian novel, Victorian-era cultural and medical history, gender and the body, and medical humanities. She teaches courses in Victorian literature, types of feminism, gender and sexuality, and cultural studies. She notes that the dawn of mass literacy and affordable printing in the 19th century made the Victorian corpus of literature so large that no one can read all of it in their lifetime — a fascinating situation to Gilbert.

Gilbert’s work also examines the ideological changes in the Victorian era and the widening divide between science and philosophy. After the French revolution, science became associated with anarchy and individualism. A “safe science” had to be peddled to the thinkers and political leaders of Europe. Gilbert notes that the contemporary United States and Europe still have this problem. “All of those questions that we’re still trying to figure out are all bubbling up in this period,” she says.

The Guggenheim Fellowship program provides a six- to twelve-month grant for artists, scholars in the humanities and social sciences, and scientific researchers to have creative freedom. Awarded on the basis of exceptional contributions to their field, the 178 successful fellows were chosen from a group of nearly 3,000 applicants in the Guggenheim Foundation’s 92nd competition.