Book Review: The Butchering Art

twitterlogoBRReview by Tom Bragg.

Both the title and subtitle of Lindsey Fitzharris’s popular medical history—The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine—hint at the sensationalism, the often lurid details with which the author baits the hook of her narrative. The creator of popular websites and a Youtube series about medical and surgical subjects, Fitzharris is clearly at home with such material, and weaves shudder-inducing factoids and interesting digressions freely throughout the book’s general story, that of Lister’s career, his developing interest in microscopy, his suspicions about the miasma “bad air” theory of disease, and his eventual role as the founder of antiseptic medicine.

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In its essentials, this account might take up half as much space as the (already slim) book’s 230-odd pages, while a more personal and introspective account might occupy many more. Joseph Lister lived to a ripe old age—indeed, his life straddles the entire Victorian Era—and his accomplishments are legion and impressive. According to the book’s blurb, Fitzharris’s aim has been to “dramatically {reconstruct] Lister’s career path,” and thus to celebrate the surgeon and innovator by contrasting his achievements with the “grisly” situations and contexts in which he worked.

As an episodic entertainment, a roomy narrative rife with interesting digressions, The Butchering Art works quite well. Perhaps the author’s familiarity with web writing influences her tendency to break down the tale into easily consumed capsules of narrative. Every chapter begins with a novel-like hook of immediacy and detail: “A halo of light from a gas lamp illuminated the corpse…,” “The thundering of cannon reverberated around the battlefield,” “…Isabella Pim felt the weight of the world on her shoulders” (37, 111, 175). Each chapter features various, often tangentially related grotesqueries of detail, such as the account of “mock duels” fought by desensitized medical students using “severed legs and arms,” or the quite fascinating mention of “no nose clubs” in London, whose members all suffered from advanced stages of syphilis. Through all of the sharply drawn detail—captivating at its best, but sometimes noisily distracting—runs the slender thread of Lister’s career, his burgeoning interests, his continuing zeal. Each chapter has a sprinkling of foreshadowing hooks that seek to link the content to Lister’s “quest,” though such connections are often tenuous, such foreshadowing forced.

What prevents The Butchering Art from being an exceptional account of either Lister or the development of antiseptic and preventative medicine is this very slickness and accessibility. It can be hard to focus on Lister or indeed any cohesive subject from chapter to chapter; when Fitzharris follows a conversational thread, the reader loses sight of the book’s main theme. Indeed, such digressions seem to be her specialty, and their inclusion makes the book very diverting reading, especially for the Victorian Era novice unfamiliar with milestones such as, say, the Great Exhibition, or with the prevalence of domestic abuse. For the casual reader with a taste for the period—especially a somewhat morbid taste—the book should be welcome. Students and researchers with more than a passing interest in the subject matter will probably look for deeper waters.  

1625599_10206202935571003_4443334843652036460_nTom Bragg is an Associate Professor at the University of South Carolina Salkehatchie. He is the author of Space and Narrative in the Nineteenth-Century British Historical Novel (Routledge, 2016).

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