tricia’s note: this is my work–my research, my writing, the wrinkles around my eyes caused by all the squinting that do as I read unpublished manuscripts (often in cold archives where no one lets me drink tea while I work)–so if you discuss it, reference it, or want to talk about it in your own work please give me credit.
I’m at the International Conference on Romanticism in Minnesota in September giving a paper that comes from what will be the introduction of my book on Romantic-era fiction. I’m interested in how women writers disrupted debates about illness and disease by narrating sickness and health in their fiction and used other forms (poetry, drama, pamphlets) to “heal” the generic conventions that demanded propriety from female heroines. I do this by focusing on how novelists represented women’s bodies in crisis in order to reveal the scientific, ideological, and moral crises of the early nineteenth century. For example, in one chapter I discuss how in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, Lady Delacour’s struggle with her wounded breast points to how gaps in women’s education about their own bodies (and society’s failure to treat them as rational individuals) damage not only women but the family unit as well. In another chapter, I focus on Adeline Mowbray by Amelia Opie, “The Sorrows of Yamba” by Hannah More, The Woman of Colour; a Tale by an anonymous nineteenth-century writer and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and argue that we can read these novels as representations of how poets and novelists use the bodies of women of color to forward an ameliorist argument in the abolition debate.* I also have a chapter on Mary Shelley’s Valperga and want (desperately) to show that she is trying replace phrenology by anthropomorphising Italy in the fourteenth century. My argument moves from small, localized moments to larger societal shifts. And so with Belinda it’s the breast and motherhood, with The Woman of Colour it’s women’s body and abolition, and with Mary Shelley, whose novel I discuss alongside the poetry of Felicia Hemans and Lord Byron, women’s bodies and minds are used to critique empire as a whole.
The introduction has to do two things: provide an overview of medical discourse and debates I consider over the course of the book and explain this whole cross-genre narration strategy I claimed that novelists use. It probably needs to do more, but that’s what I know for now.
Here is what I promised to talk about at ICR:
Sick Texts and Female Conduct: Medical Discourse and Disease in Romantic-era Fiction
In 1807, in a collection of treatises about medicine and conduct titled Hygeia or Essays Moral and Medical, physician Thomas Beddoes railed against novel reading: “NOVELS, undoubtedly, are the sort most injurious. Novels render the sensibility still more diseased. And they increase indolence, the imaginary world indisposing those, who inhabit it in thought, to go abroad into the real.” This warning is included in his prescription for the care and rearing of young women where he goes on to explain that novels of a certain kind were dangerous to the strength of the nation. While Beddoes offered sharp critiques of those outside of his profession who would offer medical advice and calls for disciplinary boundaries, he played the role of literary critic as he diagnosed texts and young women at the same time. In this paper, I’ll discuss how Beddoes’ sense that his moral duty as a physician and man of science was to instruct parents about how children, especially girls, should spend their leisure time is echoed in the fiction of the period—particularly Amelia Opie’s Adeline Mowbray, Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. The discourse of medicine, disease, and healing, I argue, permeates the fiction of the time and a close reading of Adeline, Belinda, and Marianne and their conversations about health and morality show that women novelists of the time were happy to challenge and, in some cases, debunk Beddoes’ pronouncements.
Of course, I can’t do all of that, but I can think about what I mean when I consider the novel and its place in nation building (my work is informed by Miranda Burgess’ British Fiction and the Production of Social Order, 1740-1830). I’ve been revising the Belinda chapter most of the summer (I published a version in Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies), and these four ideas have been hovering over my revision:
The novel as a disease
The novel causing disease
The novel depicting disease
The novel is diseased and is its own cure
I’ll be rereading Beddoes (pray for me, dear reader) and thinking about who reads what in these novels.
*My friend Kim has informed me that at least one of these chapters is a whole other book. She’s probably right.
2 thoughts on “Sick Novels and Sick Readers and Sick Nations”
Are you familiar with the author whose non de plume was Ouida? Her novels were considered so racy that only “mature” women should be allowed to read them because a younger woman might be incited to do something scandalous. I have read a couple of them and I remember one titles “Idalia” to be the most beautiful love story.
I haven’t heard of her, but she looks fascinating, and I feel I should have. She’s a little late for my project (I’m focusing ca1789-1830), but I’m curious about her now.