- Reading for Health: Medical Narratives and the Nineteenth-Century Novel by Erika Wright
Erika Wright’s Reading for Health: Medical Narratives and the Nineteenth-Century Novel opens with a quotation from John Ruskin’s 1880 essay “Fiction, Fair and Foul,” wherein he condemns Victorian writers for inspiring “‘funereal excitement’” in their readers. Ruskin suggests that “‘weak writers’” do their readership a disservice by using illness as an easy plot device (qtd. in Wright 1). Due to the preponderance of suggestive sickbed scenes in Victorian fiction, Wright notes that modern literary critics have often focused on the significance of illness rather than health within these texts. Reading for Health analyzes works by Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Harriet Martineau, and Elizabeth Gaskell, focusing on how characters and narrators avoid, rather than succumb to, illness. Wright thereby suggests that literary critics examine “hygienic” narrative structures, or those informed by “maintenance and prevention,” rather than those that reflect the “prelude, crisis and cure” of illness (6).
For example, Wright examines Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility (1811) as preventionist and prevention-resistant characters, respectively. In her first chapter, Wright reads the novel alongside tracts on domestic medicine in order to show the ways in which managing emotion was considered crucial to managing health. Throughout, Reading for Health shows interest in female narrators and characters that wield different forms of narrative authority in regard to their own health. For example, when analyzing Jane Eyre (1847), Wright focuses on moments when Jane defines her own state of health in the face of those who are motivated to label it for her, such as Bessie, Reverend Brocklehurst, and St. John. A chapter on Martineau’s Deerbrook (1838) draws upon Martineau’s own biography in order to argue that she depicts invalid female characters as “omniscient” and authorial (119). The concluding chapter, on Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (1864–66), argues that the doctor’s daughter, Molly, demonstrates more narrative competence, and therefore more acute diagnostic ability, than her father. It would have been productive to develop this thread of argumentation further by paying even more explicit attention to the gender implications of reading “hygienically.” For example, more critical analysis of the gendered values implicit in domestic medicine manuals would have strengthened the chapter on Austen, as would have explicit discussion of why several of the novels discussed in this monograph link marriage and mothering with the preservation of social health.
Critics such as Pamela Gilbert, Janis Caldwell, Miriam Bailin, and Tina Young Choi have analyzed illness in Dickens’s fiction by focusing on sickbed scenes and unsanitary urban environments. In her third chapter, Wright suggests that Dickens also engages metaphors of quarantine: some characters voluntarily quarantine themselves as a service to others, and others do so as a way to preserve contact with their loved ones. In both Dickens’s fiction and nonfiction, such as Little Dorrit (1855–57) and Pictures from Italy (1846), such “civilized confinement … arranges and manages social interactions,” Wright concludes (81). Though Wright contends that Dickens’s treatment of quarantine in his fiction demonstrates his ambivalence about disease transmission, perhaps a larger claim is possible: that Dickens keeps both contagionist and anticontagionist disease metaphors in play to explore with more nuance the ways in which concepts of contact and transmission map [End Page 522] onto human relationships. Nevertheless, this chapter presents some interesting possible avenues of inquiry for Dickens scholars into metaphors of quarantine and confinement.
Reading for Health is strongest when analyzing the temporal and spatial structures of hygienic narratives. For example, Wright argues that Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters “embeds” Molly’s story within the story of her father’s professional development in order to show the necessity of doctor and patient co-creating narrative. The novel democratizes the power of interpretation by having Molly claim a “recuperative” or a “healer’s” space in her own right (146). Wright further suggests that hygienic narratives encourage us to read temporal sequencing differently. Characters within the novels learn skills of...