October 25, 2007

A Nasty Case of the Vapours

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7060533.stm

An article I came across on BBC news today, related to a Radio 4 broadcast this morning that set out to explore "the lives, deaths and immune systems of heroines of English literature through the eyes of modern medicine" (listen again here). The article was slightly less promising that it sounded, aiming to investigate what was "actually" wrong with the seemingly endless stream of sickly women in "classic" (referring here to Romantic and Victorian) fiction. Three doctors of medicine and literature were asked to "diagnose" women such as Marianne in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, one doctor prescribing a case of typhus, and another reckoning that the symptoms indicate a streptococcal sore throat and later septicaemia. However, I think Dr Neil Vickers is probably on the right track: he states that "Marianne's illness is simply a plot device," claiming that "Austen needs a life threatening illness in order to return the previously overexcitable Marianne to the 'sense' of the book's title." The rest of the article includes similar diagnoses of Cathy in Wuthering Heights and Bleak House's Lady Dedlock. What would perhaps be more interesting is to think further about why Victorian heroines are so often ill; why is it an appropriate and believeable plot device and how does it function amongst women? Of course much work has explored this: Helena Michie's and Anna Krugovoy Silver's work immediately springs to mind. The related recurring motif of the sickroom in Victorian literature is another interesting area yet to be explored (as far as I know), raising questions about constructions of "femininity" and the spaces in which it is played out.

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