Probability, Statistics and the Literary Text

  • “Blougram’s Wager, Guido’s Odds: Browning, Chance and Probability”, Victorian Poetry, 41 (2003), 11–28. [Preview.]

  • “Browning, Blougram, and the Probability of God”,  Studies in Browning and His Circle, 26 (2003), 24–35.

  • “Statistical Subjects? The Individual, the City, and the Literary Text” at the Conference Monuments and Dust, Institute of Historical Research, July 2001. [Abstract] [Full paper]

Statistical Subjects? The Individual, the City and the Literary Text

My paper explores the ways in which the Victorians’ understanding of probability and statistics framed their sense of themselves as citizens and city-dwellers.   It was with a mixture of optimism and panic that they experienced the breaking down of the “social body” into quantifiable units.   Advances in the collection of data and the measurement of uncertainty rendered the average person less certain of his or her autonomy, privacy and personal value.   Imaginative literature, and especially the novel, where “probable” character and plot depended on particularity and individual agency, was unsettled by mass tendencies and the laws of large numbers.

Reading novels of London life by Dickens, Trollope, Meredith and Eliot, I argue that literary form both contributed to and was reconstituted by developments in statistical analysis and the mathematical calculus of probability.  The explosion of numbers in censuses, sanitary reports and tables of mortality suggested to the Victorians, wrongly but compellingly, a blind determinism at work in areas of life (marriage, crime, suicide) they had believed to be subject to choice and conditional on individual morality.   Other facts of life, outside human control but believed to be in God’s hands (the life span, the balance of the sexes), threatened to be reducible to mathematical laws.  I draw on the dissemination of demographic and statistical theory in Victorian popular discourse, and on recent work on probability as thematised in or as constructing literary texts, to show that London was at the centre of Victorian concerns about countability and accountability.   The city, the locus of randomness, anonymity, epidemics and faceless crowds, also offered the chance encounters, contingent relationships and structures of social interrelatedness that are at the heart of the Victorian novel.