A Home or a Gaol? Scandal, Secrecy, and the St James’s Inebriate Home for Women

The advance Open Access copy of Jennifer Wallis’s article on late Victorian inebriate homes for women, is now available here.

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Science, Medicine and Culture in the Nineteenth Century Seminars in Trinity Term 2018

tringquaggaMonday 7 May 2018 (Week 3)

Professor Harriet Ritvo, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Gone but not Forgotten:  Coming to Grips with Extinction

5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College

Extinction is a timely and controversial topic now, as it has been for centuries.  That is not, of course, to say that the focus of contention has remained constant.  At first the main question, couched at least as much in theological as in scientific terms (that is, in terms resonant with later debates about evolution), was whether it could happen.   Localized anthropogenic extinctions, most famously that of the dodo, were noticed by European travelers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (the intentional extermination of undesirable animals like wolves at home did not figure in such debates).  The dwindling and disappearance of more populous and widespread species, including the passenger pigeon, the quagga, and (nearly) the American bison, in the nineteenth century sparked a different kind of concern among the overlapping communities of hunters, naturalists, and conservationists, which helped to inspire the earliest national parks and wildlife reserves.

Tuesday 22 May 2018 (Week 5)

Dr Carolyn Burdett, Birkbeck, University of London

Sympathy limits in Daniel Deronda

5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College

From the 1860s sympathy emerged as a key term in naturalistic dispute about mechanisms of evolution and the relation of human to animal life. This paper argues that we need to look closely at these debates in order to have a fuller account of the role sympathy played in the ethical and artistic changes of the ‘end’ of Victorianism. Sympathy’s part in its own vanishing conditions during the final three decades of the nineteenth century has not yet been fully explained. As literary historians invariably turn to George Eliot to help grasp the scope and power of secular modern sympathy, I go to her final novel, Daniel Deronda, to find insight about its waning. While sympathy is explicitly referenced on more occasions in Daniel Deronda than in any other of Eliot’s fictions, many readers have noted profound changes that propel the narrative simultaneously beyond both sympathy and realism. Might sympathy, paradoxically, be a key to grasping why Eliot’s last novel is full of terror and dread, magic and divination, Gothicism and melodrama? I conclude by briefly suggesting that sympathy in the final decades of the nineteenth century is part of the same nexus of concepts that produce a new term, empathy, seen by some in the twenty-first century to have largely replaced sympathy in referencing affective and ethical capacity.

Tuesday 5 June 2018 (Week 7)

Dr Manon Mathias, University of Glasgow

 ‘What is health? It is chocolate!’: Chocolate, medicine, and writing

in nineteenth-century France

5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College

Although France’s role in the development of chocolate from an Early Modern luxury to a popular product has been noted, nowhere has the French engagement with chocolate as medicine been examined in any depth. Moreover, the numerous literary engagements with this product in nineteenth-century novels remain unexplored. Taking up the call issued by the Chocolate History Project (UC Davis) for more research on chocolate in literature and in cookbooks, this paper will examine references to chocolate in scientific and medical texts from the period but also in gastronomic texts and novels to see to what extent principles regarding chocolate reached beyond the medical field, and also to reveal the rich and complex relations between chocolate and language.

Drinks will be served after each seminar. All welcome, no booking required.

 

 

‘Wholesale poisoning by hot cross-buns’ and bizarre murders of medical men

This post is contributed by Professor Sally Shuttleworth (University of Oxford).

As you bite into your delicious hot cross-bun this Easter, spare a thought for the inhabitants of Inverness in 1882, who were subjected to ‘whole-sale poisoning by hot cross-buns’, with over 140 worthy citizens and children affected.[1]   The Glasgow Herald reported on Easter Saturday that,

‘Good Friday of 1882 is not likely to be forgotten in Inverness….In the forenoon whole families were suddenly seized with a severe and serious illness, and the town doctors were soon in great demand.  The illness manifested itself at first as a rule with giddiness and pain in the neck and limbs.  The giddiness was in every case followed by severe illness and vomiting….Families here and there were prostrate, and school children were suddenly seized with sickness and were dropping in a helpless condition on the ground.[2]

A subsequent medical enquiry pointed the finger at the spice in the buns as the agent of poison.[3]   I picked up this item of news from the Lancet, April 22, in 1822, amidst a larger item on the insanitary conditions of bread-making in London, including one establishment where bread tins were placed over an open sewer to cool.   Not to be recommended!

hot cross buns

“Hot Cross-Buns!” from Illustrated London News, 1861.

One of the delights of reading nineteenth-century periodicals is that of sheer serendipity – you never know what you will encounter next.  This item on hot-cross buns came from a section in the Lancet called  ‘Annotations’ which gives a round-up of medically-related news and is a wonderful way of exploring the goings-on and concerns of the time.  For the Diseases of Modern Life team, this particular day is a treasure trove capturing many of the issues we are exploring, from public and occupational health through to education, and the problems of drink and drug taking.    The latter figures largely, with items on ‘The Curse of Chloral’, on Dante Rossetti’s death from this new drug; ‘Another Warning against the Use of Narcotics’ on an over-worked doctor who died from an accidental overdose of morphia which he took to get to sleep; and ‘Grocers’ Licences and Secret Drinking’, which highlighted an issue Jennifer Wallis has explored, on anxieties about alcohol licenses for grocers’ premises unleashing a wave of secret female drinking:  ‘To no other members of the body politic is it so well known as to the members of our profession how the secret evils to health and morality springing from the license increase the mischievous and dangerous results from alcoholic indulgence, especially amongst the female section of the community’.   The prospect that the respectable activity of grocery shopping could become a cover for illicit female drinking was clearly alarming.

Occupational health was covered by an item on demonstrations by shop assistants for shorter hours:  the journal supported the general aim, but disapproved of ‘mixed gatherings in Trafalgar–square’ – women breaking decorum again, and disturbing public peace.   The item on education addressed the issue of the day, ‘Cramming and Forcing School Children’, expressing yet again the journal’s opposition to the excessive cramming and examining of the young: ‘It is perfectly well known to everybody who has taken the trouble to study the system of teaching and training for results – the inevitable consequence of the competition and examination mania – that education is a misnomer for the method of tuition too generally employed’.   I would recommend this section to our current Secretary of State for Education as some Easter reading, while munching a hot-cross bun.

By far the most bizarre item in these ‘Annotations’ comes in under the bland title, ‘A Strange Story’.   It recounts ‘an extraordinary plot to murder a number of medical men in Berlin’.   The plot was discovered when two accomplices went to the police.   The idea was to hire rooms in various parts of town, and summon a doctor under the pretence of illness ‘and then to murder him by means of a strangling instrument’.   The instrument, which the perpetrator had spent two years devising, based on ‘an old-fashioned instrument of torture preserved in one of the museums of the city’ is described in gruesome detail.   Even more bizarrely, the police allowed the plot to go ahead, hiding in an adjoining room and dressing up one of their number as the intended victim, Dr Lehrs.  They only intervened when the ‘half-strangled man’ knocked on the floor to summon aid.   If it were not for the fact that this tale pre-dates the Sherlock Holmes stories by eleven years, I would have been tempted to think that the police had been consuming too much detective fiction.  I had always assumed that the elaborate dramas of enticement, so beloved of crime writers, largely belonged to the fictional domain.  Now I am not so sure.

Happy Easter everyone, but beware of over-indulgence, whether of hot-cross buns, alcohol (or other stimulants), or television crime dramas!

 

 

[1]  ‘Annotations’, Lancet April 22, 1882, 657-664, p. 661.   See also ‘The Poisoning by Hot Cross Buns’, Morning Post, Monday, April 10, 1882, p. 6.

[2]   ‘Alarming Occurrence in Inverness’, Glasgow Herald, Saturday April 8, 1882; also ‘The Poisoning Case in Inverness’, Glasgow Herald, Monday April 10, 1882, where the original estimate of 100 cases goes up to 140.

[3]   ‘Poisonous Hot-Cross Buns’, August 12, 1882, p. 284.

Conference – Mind Reading: The Role of Narrative in Mental Health

Mind Reading 2017 - 260 x 323

18th-19th June 2018, University of Birmingham

Key note speakers:

Professor Brendan Drumm (UCD)

Professor Femi Oyebode (University of Birmingham)

Professor Chris Fitzpatrick (UCD)

Professor Dame Sue Bailey, and

Professor Sally Shuttleworth (University of Oxford)

Do clinicians and patients speak the same language? How might we bridge the evident gaps in communication? How can we use narrative to foster clinical relationships? Or to care for the carers?

This two-day programme of talks and workshops is a collaboration between the University of Birmingham, UCD Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Diseases of Modern Life and Constructing Scientific Communities Projects at St Anne’s College, Oxford. Together we seek to explore productive interactions between narrative and mental health both historically and in the present day. Bringing together psychologists, psychiatrists, GPs, service users, and historians of literature and medicine, we will investigate the patient experience through the prism of literature and personal narrative to inform patient-centred care and practice, and focus on ways in which literature might be beneficial in cases of burnout and sympathy fatigue.

A DRAFT PROGRAMME IS AVAILABLE HERE: https://literatureandmentalhealth.files.wordpress.com/2018/03/mind-reading-programme1.pdf

REGISTRATION IS NOW OPEN AND PLACES CAN BE BOOKED: https://shop.bham.ac.uk/conferences-and-events/college-of-arts-law/school-of-english-drama-american-canadian-studies/mind-reading-literature-and-mental-health-conference

 

Confusing Times: Communicating, 24/7

 

Confusing Times

Source: Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Kladderadatsch, 22 Feb. 1857, p. 36 – CC-BY-SA 3.0

In the age of smartphones, broadband internet access, and cheap(ish) air travel, the vision of the ‘global village’, appears to have become a reality. Networks of communication and transportation ensure that work and social life can remain uninterrupted, as those of us privileged enough to benefit from new technologies become—potentially—contactable anytime, anywhere. In the virtual world, video conferences and phone calls take place around the clock, maintaining business relations and friendships across the globe. In the physical world, distance remains an obstacle, but meetings are scheduled at increasingly short notice, as an ever growing number of flights carry passengers from one end of the world to the other, at all times of the day and night.

The roots of this global 24/7 society can arguably be traced back to the introduction of telegraphy during the nineteenth century. Only from the late 1840s and 1850s did networks of communication begin to extend across entire states, continents and, eventually, the globe, allowing a steadily expanding group of users to exchange messages over considerable distances, and instantaneously—at least, in theory. In practice, the cost of inter-continental telegrams long remained prohibitive, and technological limitations often meant that communication was interrupted or delayed. But the idea that diplomacy, business, news reporting, and even social interactions could be conducted across the globe in ‘real time’ both fuelled and confused the contemporary imagination.

Already in 1857, the German economist Karl Knies sketched out the implications of instant messaging for people’s understanding of time. Considering ‘a telegraphic dispatch which is sent eastwards and arrives “in the blink of an eye”’, he wrote, ‘the further it travels, the later it arrives—compared with the time at the sending office; and one which is sent westwards must arrive increasingly “earlier” than when it is sent’. Anticipating the imminent establishment of a telegraphic connection between Europe and North America, he explained that if ‘a message in Washington, New York or Philadelphia arrives five hours “earlier” than it is sent from London, Amsterdam or Paris, it overtakes the “course of the sun”, and puts into question a number of practical matters of everyday life”. For the first time, Knies explained, ordinary individuals would have to be attentive to the date in different places across the world: ‘next to the “today” in our Europe there is a “yesterday” in Asia, and a “tomorrow” in America’.[1]

A year later, the first trans-Atlantic cable was laid between Ireland and Newfoundland, sparking a fascination for the ‘contemporaneity’ of different days and times. The German satirical newspaper, Kladderadatsch, immediately seized on the opportunity to play with the temporal disorder which the telegraph appeared to cause. An article entitled ‘The Wonderful Effects of the Transatlantic Telegraph’ presented a sequence of imaginary exchanges, which began with a telegram received in Quebec, on 10th June 1860, at 5 am, announcing that a fire had broken out in the Tower of London at 10 am that day. The message was immediately transmitted to Nikolayevsk-on-Amur, in Eastern Russia, where it arrived on 9th June at 10pm, local time, and from there was sent to Moscow.

Upon receiving the news of the fire, the article continues, the police chief in Moscow promptly telegraphed the Lord Mayor of London, at 4pm on 9th June (local time),  describing the alarming message ‘which we have just received from America, sent tomorrow morning from London’. ‘Thanks to the wonderful head-start which the telegraph provides’, the police chief added, ‘I hope you will be in a position to prevent the imminent danger’. The Lord Mayor of London finally replied, at 1 pm on 9th June: ‘Thanks, a thousand thanks! Your zeal will save us. The fire services have been alerted, the fire engines are being driven past the site and tested, such that we can hope to extinguish the fire tomorrow morning as soon as it breaks out’.[2]

One hundred and sixty years on, this early fascination with the impact of a now defunct technology may seem almost endearing. Yet the temporal confusion which accompanied the early experience of telegraphic communication has by no means disappeared in the face of increasing global integration. How many of us ask ourselves, as we board a long-haul flight, ‘At what time do I land? And what time will that be in my mind?’, as we plan a strategy to adapt our body clock to local time upon arrival. How many urgent emails are put on hold or lie unanswered because our partners across the pond ‘aren’t awake yet’? Many are the long-distance calls, conferences and interviews, which are planned in advance to suit the habits of individuals in different time zones—heaven forbid one of them should switch to Daylight Saving Time in the interim—only to then begin with the question: ‘so what time is it where you are then?’

Whilst the telegraph lay the foundations of the perpetually connected world in which many of us live, it also first demonstrated the social and biological limits to global synchronisation. As a cartoon published in Kladderadatsch illustrated, the laying of the trans-Atlantic cable in 1858 heralded the age of instantaneous communication—it augured a world kept awake by the pulse of the network. But it also highlighted the many social rhythms and diurnal cycles that co-existed across the globe—frameworks of activity with which the tempo of communication would have to compete. The scene depicted is reminiscent of many a present-day Skype conversation, scheduled at the fringes of two individuals’ days, confronting the bleary-eyed bed-goer with the fresh alertness of the early bird: ‘Good Night, dear Jonathan. How do you do?’, the Englishman asks his American friend. ‘Good morning, dear John! Very well!’[3]

Transatlantic telegraph

Source: Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Kladderadatsch, 22 Aug. 1858, p. 156 – CC-BY-SA 3.0

 

[1] Karl Knies, Der Telegraph als Verkehrsmittel (Tübingen, 1857), pp. 190-1.

[2] Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Kladderadatsch, 29 Aug. 1858, p. 158.

[3] Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Kladderadatsch, 22 Aug. 1858, p. 156.

‘Mind Boggling Medical History’ Card Game Launch Event – Feb 28th!

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February 28th
5pm
Royal College of Nursing Library and Heritage Centre, London

Register here!

Join us for the launch of “Mind-Boggling Medical History” and explore the unexpected in medical and healthcare practice and history.

Mind-Boggling Medical History is a card game and educational resource led by the Constructing Scientific Communities project at the University of Oxford, in partnership with RCN Library and Archives. It is funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The educational game is designed to challenge preconceptions and show how ideas in medicine change for a variety of reasons.

The online game is accompanied by teaching resources to enable it to be used in schools for history or health education lessons, and for nursing and medical students at university.

Attendees at the launch will all receive a limited edition printed pack of the 50 card game and answer booklet.

Join us for a Contagion Camerata – February 2nd, 2018

Local students have been working with Dr John Traill (University of Oxford) to compose musical pieces about science and medicine. For inspiration, the students attended the Contagion Cabaret at Oxford’s Curiosity Carnival in September.

Hear their compositions in a showcase at St Anne’s College in February. Details below.

2 February 2018
6:30 pm
Mary Ogilvie Lecture Theatre
St Anne’s College, Oxford

No booking required. Free entry.

 

Science, Medicine and Culture in the Nineteenth Century Seminars in Hilary Term 2018

Galton Inquiries 1883Our programme for Hilary Term 2018 is now announced with three seminars at St Anne’s College.

Drinks will be served after each seminar. All welcome, no booking is required.

Tuesday 30 January 2018 (Week 3)

Professor Oliver Zimmer, University of Oxford

Time Tribes: How the Railways Made Communities (1840-1900)

5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College

When it comes to modern loyalties, scholars of various disciplines have predominantly looked at class, profession, region or nation. While these no doubt represent important sources of identity, in the long nineteenth century TIME emerged as a significant source of individual and collective self-definition. Increasingly, how people related to and made use of their own time marked out their actual and desired status. Time, that most elusive of matters, became instrumental for the making and unmaking of communities that sometimes transcended regional and national contexts. Much of this can be attributed to the railways and the temporal innovations they facilitated, above all standard time and railway timetables. This paper approaches the phenomenon in question – time tribes – through an investigation of British and German railway passengers.

 

Tuesday 13 February 2018 (Week 5)

Dr Ryan Sweet, University of Leeds

Normalcy Interrogated: Prosthetic Hand Users in Victorian Sensation-Fiction Narratives

5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College

The nineteenth century is often celebrated as a period of great innovation in artificial limbs. Not only did the century see tremendous developments in surgical practice, meaning that more amputees survived amputation and more survived with serviceable stumps able to support prosthetic limbs, but an attitude was also cultivated that increasingly privileged physical “normalcy”. As the concept of the “normal” body was constructed by contexts such as the emergence of bodily statistics, the growth of sciences that equated physical appearances with particular character traits, and changes in Poor Law legislation, it became more important than ever before for individuals to conceal bodily losses in order to avoid the stigma attached to physical difference. An emerging profession of prosthesis makers cashed in on both this growing consumer market and wider taste for physical “wholeness”—an explicit constituent of “normalcy”—by producing sophisticated artificial limbs designed to conceal limb loss (aesthetically and functionally). The products of the most successful of these limb makers, such as A. A. Marks and Frederick Gray, were celebrated by journalists and advocates on both sides of the Atlantic. In spite of such high spirits surrounding the achievements of artificial limbs, literary representations of prostheses tended to be more critical of both the efficacy of and logic underpinning such devices. Two examples of a texts that complicated the developing hegemony of physical “wholeness”—as well as the importance placed on concealing physical difference—were the sensation-fiction short stories “Lady Letitia’s Lilliput Hand” (1862) by Robert William Buchanan and “Prince Rupert’s Emerald Ring” (1895) by T. Lockhart. In this talk, I will argue that texts such as these challenged the status quo by presenting sensory critiques of hand prostheses and questioning the demand for them to enable users to “pass” as “normal”.

 

Tuesday 27 February 2018 (Week 7)

Dr Jana Funke, University of Exeter

‘Sexo-Aesthetic Inversion’: Transgender Subjectivities in Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Literature and Science

5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College

Much scholarship on the history of sexual science in relation to trans history has tended to focus on two related areas of sexological activity: the invention of diagnostic categories to produce fixed and stable identities, and the development of surgical and hormonal technologies to alter the physical appearance of trans bodies over the course of the 1920s and 1930s. As a result, sexual science is mainly remembered for implementing a medicalized framework that produced rigid diagnostic labels and put emphasis on the physical or somatic aspects of trans experience. This paper presents an alternative account of the relation between trans history and sexual science by focusing on a slightly earlier historical period, the decades between 1880 and 1920. At a time when surgical and hormonal interventions were not yet within immediate medical reach, understandings of what is nowadays described as trans identity emerged through sustained dialogue between scientific and literary writers who shared ideas concerning the role of Einfühlung (empathy), fantasy, dreams, the imagination and creativity in enabling an individual to experience and achieve cross-gender identification. Starting with British sexologist Havelock Ellis’s concept of ‘sexo-aesthetic inversion’ and Ellis’s exchange with modernist writer Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman) in the late 1910s, the paper works backwards to trace the intellectual roots of the scientific-literary framing of trans subjectivities. These include late nineteenth-century scientific studies of colour hearing, sense perception and aesthetics as well as works by literary authors like Olive Schreiner, Vernon Lee and William Sharp/Fiona Macleod to name but a few. Through its investigation of this earlier moment, the paper moves across the Victorian-Modernist divide to illuminate previously overlooked forms of exchange between literary and sexual scientific writings and to offer an alternative account of modern trans history.

Now What? Surviving Serious Illness in the Nineteenth-Century

Krienke Bio Pic

Hosanna Krienke joined the project in December 2017. She researches convalescence and narrative in nineteenth-century Britain.

Writing in 1991, sociologist Arthur W. Frank declared that Western scientific medicine had created what he called “the remission society,” a growing number of patients whose lives were saved by medical treatment but who could not be considered cured. This remission society includes people who are cancer survivors, manage heart disease, or live with autoimmune disorders. Such conditions, which would have been fatal only a century ago, now can be managed successfully across many years. Yet such longevity also produces a new challenge for medical professionals and patients. While much of twentieth-century medicine single-mindedly pursued the ideal of full cures (for example, the misguided attempt to find a single cure for all cancers), Frank suggested that medicine of the twenty-first century would need to come to terms with a different kind of caregiving in which patients and physicians both learn to cope with open-ended treatment regimens and uncertainty about patients’ prognosis.

Girl and Dog

‘A young girl convalescing in an armchair is visited by her dog. Etching by H. Formstecher after H. Bacon.’ by Henry Bacon. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

While Frank imagined that the remission society is unique to today, my work reveals that this emerging medical culture has much to learn from nineteenth-century survivors of illness. I examine Victorian ideas of convalescence, a condition of ongoing recovery and extended uncertainty that followed serious illness. Frank posited that people in the remission society remain “neither ill nor completely well.”[1] Similarly, Victorian convalescents were, according to one physician, “in an intermediate state—neither ill, nor yet quite well.”[2] As I discover, Victorian physicians, philanthropists, writers, and domestic caregivers crafted a sustained ideology to deal with the stress of surviving acute illness. Convalescents faced a prolonged process of rehabilitation as they waited to see whether they would gradually improve, malinger, or relapse. The Victorians worked to alleviate the angst of convalescence both through personalized caregiving practices and unique interpretive strategies designed to make meaning within persistent uncertainty.

Weak but not ill, convalescents could no longer benefit from medical treatment. Nevertheless, Victorian writers, philanthropists, and caregivers concocted a whole range of ways to support the recuperating medical patient’s physical, mental and social well-being. Convalescent patients needed relaxation, fresh air, and hearty meals. They also needed healthful distractions, such as social visits, travel, and novels. “Even the outside of a new and interesting book,” one caregiving manual insisted, “which must not be read until permission is given, will have its beneficial effect.”[3] While nineteenth-century scientific medicine increasingly focused on disease processes within the body, convalescent ideology focused on improving the patient’s larger environment. Such changes, it was believed, could profoundly affect the course of patients’ recovery, potentially forestalling relapses, helping chronic conditions, and hastening full recovery.

Alongside practical benefits like leisure and nutrition, convalescent patients needed strategies for coping with the extended boredom, sudden relapses, and small gains of prolonged rehabilitation. Writing about his own recovery from a surgical amputation, the poet W.E. Henley bitterly complained, “Altogether convalescence is a trying period both for nurses and patients […] it is an uninteresting, unsympathetic, and uncomfortable probation.”[4] An entire genre of convalescent self-help manuals and religious devotionals sought to offer strategies to counteract the stress and uncertainty of convalescence. Most importantly, these texts advised against any attempt to predict the outcome of one’s convalescent care. One devotional manual counselled, “[R]esist fore-casting, and undue dwelling on results or consequences.”[5] Even positive conjectures could be hazardous “lest the dangerous hopes which convalescence brings with it should meet with disappointment.”[6] Instead of looking to the future for meaning, convalescents and their caregivers were supposed to track and analyse the complex social, physical, and mental factors at work on the patient’s ongoing recovery.

Convalescent Being Read to

‘A girl reads to a convalescent while a nurse brings in the patient’s medicine. Watercolour by R.H. Giles.’ by R.H. Giles. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

As a literary scholar, I examine the history of nineteenth-century convalescent care in order to identify how patients and caregivers narrated the experience of uncertainty. Ultimately, I use these historical narrative forms to better understand how readers can engage with the prolonged uncertainty of reading Victorian novels. My central question is this: if Victorian convalescents were meant to interpret their ongoing recovery without predicting potential outcomes, what would it mean for readers of Victorian novels (particularly novels that feature illness) to interpret an unfolding plot without reference to its ending?

If you have read many Victorian novels, you are already familiar with the timescale of convalescence. Readers are often asked to invest hours of reading-time in tracking the prolonged recuperations of say, Esther Summerson in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House or Lucy Snowe in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. Many critics read such illness episodes as symbolic of the psychological obstacles these characters face. By contrast, my work reveals that Victorians valued the unique opportunities for reflection provided by the slow time of convalescence. Thus I want to apply the interpretive techniques of convalescent care to Victorian novels in order to recover the ethical value and interpretive meaning Victorian readers would have been trained to find within narratives of digression, boredom, and waiting.

But more than offering new readings of nineteenth-century texts, the history of Victorian convalescent culture can help guide current physicians and patients who are part of our modern remission society. Victorian convalescents spoke with great eloquence and insight about the frustrations—and opportunities—of living within prognostic uncertainty. Thus while Victorian convalescent practices have never before been described within scholarship on the history of medicine, I hope to demonstrate how the distinctive interpretive postures of the nineteenth-century convalescence movement are increasingly relevant to our historical moment as more and more people live with the uncertainty of a medical prognosis.

[1] Arthur W. Frank, At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness. Boston: Houghton Mifflin: 1991. 154.

[2] William Strange, MD, The Restoration of Health: Or, the application of the Laws of Hygiene to the Recovery of Health. London: Longmans, Green, 1865. 224.

[3] Edmund S. and Ellen J. Delamere, Wholesome Fare; or, The Doctor and the Cook. London: Lockwood & Co, 1868. 736-7. Original emphasis.

[4] W.E. Henley, “Convalescence.” Saturday Review. October 6, 1877. 418.

[5] Mary Ethel Granger, Life Renewed: A Manual for Convalescents Arranged for Daily Reading. London: Longmans, 1891. 70.

[6] George Black, Sick-Nursing: A Handbook for All Who Have to Do with Cases of Disease and Convalescence. London: n.p., 1888. 37.