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Reviewed by:
  • Reading the Brontë Body: Disease, Desire, and the Constraints of Culture
  • Athena Vrettos (bio)
Reading the Brontë Body: Disease, Desire, and the Constraints of Culture, by Beth Torgerson; pp. x + 180. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, £40.00, $65.00.

This book examines in detail what readers of the Brontës have long recognized: the remarkable number and variety of illnesses that appear in the lives and fictions of Anne, Charlotte, and Emily Brontë. Beth Torgerson excludes from this study the Brontë juvenilia, Emily's poetry, and Charlotte's The Professor (1853) and Jane Eyre (1847). The rest of [End Page 530] the Brontë sisters' novels, however, are carefully mined for representations of illness; for metaphors of illnesses that aren't otherwise represented, such as Asiatic cholera and plague; for conditions that weren't considered diseases in the nineteenth century but are today, such as alcoholism; and for conditions that haven't at any time been considered diseases, but involve pale bodies that look ill, such as ghostliness and vampirism.

The many scholarly studies of illness and embodiment in fiction by the Brontës—and Victorian literature more generally—over the last decade or two pose a potential problem for this project. While Torgerson is frequently successful in finding new material to discuss in her individual readings of the novels, she largely ignores the wider theoretical and historical debates that have taken place about the role of the body, illness, and medicine in relation to Victorian literature and culture. Torgerson focuses instead on "how illness provides [the Brontë sisters] with unique ways to critique gender and class constraints inherent in Victorian culture" (3), a subject that, she asserts, "deserves much more attention than it has currently received" (3). By applying the model of medical anthropology to literature, Torgerson seeks to "place the ill body within its cultural context" (5) and thus "pay greater attention to how disease and symptoms of illness point toward cultural conflicts" (8). While these are admirable goals, they are hardly breaking new ground. Furthermore, Torgerson's deployment of medical anthropology in her introduction does not always clarify her methodology. For example, in attempting to find a middle ground between those who assert terminological distinctions between "disease" as a disruption in biological functioning and "illness" as the subjective, lived experience of disease, and those who reject such distinctions, Torgerson muddies the waters by claiming to preserve the distinction while actually collapsing it, since "the term illness . . . can incorporate the concept of 'disease' within it" (4). This has unfortunate consequences in the later chapters when Torgerson's uses of the terms "disease" and "illness" range, often indiscriminately and unpredictably, between biological, psychosomatic, psychological, cultural, and symbolic concepts and claims.

Each of Torgerson's chapters addresses a different illness in relation to one of the Brontë sisters' fictions, beginning with representations of alcoholism in Anne's Agnes Gray (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). Noting that Anne challenges the mid-century literature on intemperance by portraying it as a middle-class, rather than a lower-class, problem, Torgerson argues that these two texts portray female vanity as the equivalent of male alcoholism. She also claims, conversely, that the ideal of female self-sacrifice merely perpetuates dysfunctional male behavior such as intemperance. Anne's critique of intemperance as an illness thus extends to a critique of the patriarchal system as pathological in its promotion of traditional gender roles. Although Torgerson returns to the subject of intemperance later in the book, her approach to Charlotte's Shirley (1849) focuses on moments when Charlotte uses metaphors of one disease to describe another. While this produces some fine insights about individual scenes of illness, Torgerson's larger argument becomes strained when she asserts that Charlotte "displaces" her concern with Asiatic cholera (based on two metaphoric references) onto other illnesses in Shirley in order to "displace" issues of class onto issues of gender in the novel, and thus to encourage her readers to think of illnesses such as cancer, rabies, hysteria, brain fever, and consumption as being caused (like cholera) by forces that are subject to social reform. Torgerson's argument is more coherent, if less original, when...


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pp. 530-532
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