Somatic Fictions: Imagining Illness in Victorian Culture

Somatic Fictions: Imagining Illness in Victorian Culture

Somatic Fictions: Imagining Illness in Victorian Culture

Somatic Fictions: Imagining Illness in Victorian Culture

Synopsis

Somatic Fictions focuses on the centrality of illness- particularly psycho-somatic illness- as an imaginative construct in Victorian culture, emphasizing how it shaped the terms through which people perceived relationships between body and mind, self and other, private and public. Vrettos uses nineteenth-century fiction, diaries, medical treatises, and health advice manuals to examine how Victorians tried to understand and control their world through a process of physiological and pathological definition. Tracing the concept of illness in the work of a variety of novelists- Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Henry James, Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Meredith, Bram Stoker, and H. Rider Haggard- she explores the historical assumptions, patterns of perception, and structures of belief that invested sick and heat with cultural meaning.

Illness, with its power to make one's body seem alien, or to link disparate groups of people through contagion, suggested to Victorians the potential instability of social and biological identities. Displacing chaotic social issues onto matters of physiology, they managed a variety of social issues, including questions of race, imperialism, anthropometry, and health. This book explores how Victorian narrative registers fears of psychic and somatic permeability, sympathetic identification with another's pain, and conflicting measures of racial and cultural fitness.

Excerpt

To talk of diseases is a sort of Arabian Nights' entertainment. -- Sir William Osler

The attraction of the "medical" body, its diseases and diagnoses, as a subject of narrative interest is, as the celebrated nineteenth-century physician Sir William Osler recognized, seemingly endless. Like the mythical "wandering womb" of the hysteric, fictions of illness make their appearance in multiple and shifting areas of Victorian thought. It is difficult to find many Victorian novels that do not participate in a general dialogue about sickness and health, whether through sustained representations of physical affliction and exertion or passing metaphors of bodily sensitivity and threat. Equally pervasive are the narrative maneuvers of Victorian medical texts in their attempts to define medicine as a philosophical as well as a scientific endeavor determined, like the Victorian novel, to answer questions about the material, social, and spiritual nature of human relations.

Yet amidst this compelling desire to "talk of diseases" in the nineteenth century lies a competing urge to define both the appropriate and potentially inappropriate forms these narratives should take. When William Osler contemplates the seductive entrance of disease into language, he includes an important caveat: "To talk of diseases is a sort of Arabian Nights' entertainment to which no discreet nurse will lend her talents" (94, my emphasis). Simultaneously invoking and revoking expectations of narrative pleasure through the specter of professional discretion, Osler's recognition of the ludic function . . .

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