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Reviewed by:
  • Medical Women and Victorian Fiction
  • Mary Spongberg
Medical Women and Victorian Fiction. By Kristine Swenson. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005. Pp. 240. $39.95 (cloth).

The figure of the "naughty" or "nasty" nurse is ubiquitous in modern British popular culture, as likely to appear in a P. D. James novel as in a Benny Hill comedy sketch. As Kristine Swenson suggests in the introduction to her wonderful new book, Medical Women and Victorian Fiction, the presence of this perverse inversion of the angelic Nightingale nurse has its origins in the "cultural intersections of fiction, feminism and medicine during the second half of the nineteenth century in Britain and her colonies," origins this work is largely devoted to exploring. As Swenson suggests, recent scholarship on Victorian fiction, feminism, and medical discourse has come together most persistently around the figure of the prostitute, who more than any other figure "embodied her culture's anxieties over sexuality, disease, and moral corruption" (2). This text, however, takes as its focus a seemingly "opposing figure," the medical woman, whom Victorians deployed to combat these social ills and who, Swenson convincingly argues, "signals better than any other female figure the inherent contradictions of 'woman' in a 'scientific' culture" (2). Using evidence drawn largely from Victorian and Edwardian novels, biography, newspaper and periodical literature, medical journals, and nursing tracts, Medical Women and Victorian Fiction explores the many contradictions inherent in cultural representation of the medical woman in nineteenth-century Britain and how debates about women doctors and nurses were played out in the pages of such texts.

The theoretical framework of Medical Women and Victorian Fiction is essentially Foucauldian, although also informed by recent feminist scholarship. Swenson asserts a reciprocal and complicated relationship between women and medicine in Victorian culture by examining development of cultural representations of the reformed or "Nightingale nurse" and the "new woman" doctor. Swenson structures the text around a shift in popular perceptions of the "medical woman" embodied in the figure of Mrs. Gaskell's Ruth Hilton and sets out to explore the origins of the sensational and sexualized "nurse" through Gaskell's novel Ruth. In Swenson's analysis Ruth serves as the Ur-text through which the contradictions inherent in the figure of the medical woman in Victorian literature and culture can [End Page 517] be traced and understood. Just as Ruth's relationship to respectability is always unstable, so too is the Victorian medical woman, whose proximity and intimate knowledge of strangers' bodies and dubious relationship to fallen women also place her somewhere beyond the bounds of respectability. Ruth is a text much read by feminist critics, and Gaskell's use of typhus as an agent of social morality and a means of contriving Ruth's death have been commented on by others. Swenson, however, enhances the significance of the novel by demonstrating how Ruth's belief that her faith would inoculate her from typhus was not merely a narrative device used by Gaskell to ensure her martyrdom but rather reflected the utter disregard of contagion that underpinned Florence Nightingale's reformation of nursing in this period. The success of reformed nursing depended upon a belief that immorality generated disease and that morality protected against disease. Contagion theory rendered disease a matter of chance, a notion neither Gaskell nor Nightingale could sanction.

Such a reading allows Swenson to insist that what finally overwhelms Ruth is not typhus but sexual desire. While other critics have treated this as a metaphorical subtext in the novel, Swenson argues that it is possible that Gaskell intended this quite literally. The emphasis the novel places upon emotion as a vector of fever and the sexual passion Ruth admits to feeling for her seducer suggest that Gaskell was implying that Ruth's suppressed desire for Bellingham predisposed her to typhus. The delirium Ruth experiences is an accurately drawn symptom of typhus, according to Swenson, however much it might also reveal Ruth's disturbed psyche.

Ruth's death enables Gaskell to transform the fallen woman into an angel of mercy who rewrites the vocation of nursing. Such a transformation, however, was more difficult for the Nightingale nurse, who embodied the same...


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pp. 517-521
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