AbstractsLanguage, Literature & Linguistics

"A Strange Fever of the Nerves and Blood": Nervous Illness in the Literature of the Nineteenth Century

by Sarah Parry

Institution: Victoria University of Wellington
Year: 2014
Keywords: Illness; Nineteenth-century; Literature
Record ID: 1311294
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/10063/3379


In the nineteenth century, the discussion of personal health and wellbeing became almost a national pastime. With publications such as the British Medical Journal and Lancet freely accessible to the everyday reader, common medical terms and diagnoses were readily absorbed by the public. In particular, the nineteenth century saw the rapid rise of the ‘nervous illness’ – sicknesses which had no apparent physical cause, but had the capacity to cripple their victims with (among other things) delirium, tremors and convulsions. As part of the rich social life of this popular class of disorder, writers of fiction within the nineteenth century also participated in the public dialogue on the subject. Authors such as Charlotte Brontë, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle all constructed narratives involving nervous sufferers, particularly hypochondriacs and victims of brain fever. Despite writing in a wide variety of genres ranging from Gothic to realist, the roles played by the illnesses within the texts of these authors remain a vital feature of the plot, either as a hindrance to the protagonists (by removing key players from the plot at a critical moment) or a method of revealing deeper aspects of their character. Nervous illnesses carried with them social stigmas: men could be rendered feminine; women could be branded recklessly passionate or even considered visionaries as ideas about the nerves, the supposed seat of emotion and passion, brought into sharp relief the boundaries between physical and mental suffering, and physical and spiritual experiences. The central aim of this thesis is to examine the cultural understanding of nervous illness and how nineteenth-century texts interacted with and challenged this knowledge. It focuses on how nineteenth-century authors of different genres – particularly the Gothic, sensation and realist genres – use the common convention of nervous illness – particularly hypochondria and brain fever – to develop their protagonists and influence the plot. Through comparisons between literary symptoms and those recorded by contemporary sufferers and their physicians, this thesis analyses the way that the cultural concept of nervous illness is used by four principal Victorian authors across a range of their works, looking at how hypochondria and brain fever function within their plots and interact with gender and genre conventions to uphold and subvert the common tropes of each. Whether it aids or hinders the protagonist, or merely gives the reader an insight into their personality, nervous illness in the Victorian novel was a widely used convention which speaks not only of the mindset of the author, but also of the public which so willingly received it.