Sick Novels and Sick Readers and Sick Nations

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this is my work–my research, my writing, the wrinkles around my eyes caused by all the  squinting that do as I read unpublished manuscripts (often in cold archives where no one lets me drink tea while I work)–so if you discuss it, reference it, or want to talk about it in your own work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.



Writing Retreat: Day the First

I think I have a new personal rule: if anyone invites you to anyplace in New England with “port” in its name, say, “yes” and “thank you very much,” throw what you need in the back of your car, program the GPS and race them to the meeting point.

A few weeks ago my good friend Karen, who couldn’t fall into a rut if a team of ruts ganged up and tried to attack her, sent me an e-mail inviting me to go on what she called a “writing retreat” in Newport, Rhode Island. I’m skeptical of such things because I’m not a spend-all-day-writing kind of writer. I’m a write-for-an-hour-daydream-for-an-hour-then-go-take-a-nap kind of writer.

But I have an essay due May 28th, the academic year has ended, and since, apparently, this is my year of avoiding ruts, I decided to go for it.

Now the idea of Karen taking a writing retreat makes sense—a mother of two, wife of one (that I know of), dog owner, band member, and domestic queen needs a break. I am responsible for two (sometimes three) plants and can’t even commit to an internet provider. The idea of needing a “retreat” seemed the height of indulgence.

But now that I’m here it feels, like so many other luxuries, so very necessary, and I think President Obama should start a fund for struggling assistant professors teaching at colleges and universities who expect scholars to teach full loads while “contributing regularly to their fields of specialization through the publication of peer-reviewed scholarship.” But I digress…

This is a good, productive thing. In the first place, going away to write for a week requires the kind of preparation helpful for finishing a twenty-page essay on Mary Shelley’s complicated novel Valperga and its relation to the relatively unheard of Felicia Hemans. Since I couldn’t bring everything with me, I had to go through the files for the essay and figure out what I really needed (as opposed to things that were interesting but not useful). My reward for completing this project was permission from my inner Suze Orman to buy a new file organizer. It also forced me to reread the essay, something I’d been avoiding, to see precisely what I needed to do to finish it. I’m closer than I thought, and after telling everyone that I was going on a writing retreat, I have to come back with something!

Day 1—Monday

After a mid-morning nap (don’t judge), I packed up the car and headed up to Rhode Island, stopping along the way at an outlet mall I spotted (this as a way of paying homage to my mother and our shopping traditions).

I knew I was right to say yes when I noticed two things: the sky seemed bluer and, with the exception of the outlet mall, I hadn’t seen a retail chain in hours.

I’m not really a boat person, but they sure are purty to look at as they bob up and down in the water, and as the English accent in my GPS directed me to “turn left” over and over again, it began to dawn on me that when the description of the place read, “near the water” the owner wasn’t kidding.

My home away from home is a three-story duplex at the end of a little road, a block away from the harbor. It has a deck and a sunbathing deck. Karen has explained to me that the sunbathing deck is higher than the surrounding houses so that I can be naked up there in private. I should note that it’s about 60 degrees, and I get cold in the summer…and I think the sea-gulls would laugh at naked Tricia “sunbathing” on some random roof.

Karen brought the dog, rum, tequila, and some green concotion she’s calling soup. I brought a bottle of good Zinfandel, a few movies, and grapes. Oh and we both brought the stuff we need to write.

I went on two walks in my first few hours here. That’s a good thing.

Dinner at the restaurant around the corner was delicious, and I’m tempted to go back to try the chicken-fried lobster. I mean, seriously—chicken fried lobster? Oh. My. Gawd.

It’s quiet and we’re living among the locals, talking about our multiple writing projects, men, some model who married some athlete, and the mixed pleasures of dog ownership.

Last night I knew I was in retreat mode when I ended the day reading the poems I’ll be writing about this week. I put on the ridiculously fluffy robe my father bought me for Christmas last year with the new slippers I bought for the trip and did a bit of writing, something I rarely due after 7:00 pm unless an editor is pestering me for revisions.

In the words of Orphan Annie: I think I’m gonna like it here.