- Desire and Disorder: Fevers, Fictions, and Feeling in English Georgian Culture
Everybody’s got the fever That is somethin’ you all know Fever isn’t such a new thing Fever started long ago ...—Peggy Lee’s cover of Little Willie John’s “Fever,” 1958/1956
The eighteenth-century literary understanding of fever is a great topic for a book, for few words in a doctor’s vocabulary at this time occasioned more anxiety or more uncertainty. Fevers were everywhere, and though some were common, everyday complaints, many were disgustingly deadly. Distinguishing among them was also an ongoing problem. Apart from being classed together because of the high body temperature that they produced in patients, everything else about fevers—their causes, symptoms, modes of transmission, and treatment—was open to interpretation and dispute throughout the century. Little was known about most of these fevers—typhus (and typhoid, often confused with it), yellow fever, malaria, scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, diphtheria, smallpox, puerperal fever, cholera—but many had the nasty habit of quickly killing otherwise healthy people. Stories are legion of individuals coming down with a headache in the evening, only to be dead by the next morning. Giving birth to children had always been a dangerous business for women, but the epidemic rise of child-bed fever during the eighteenth century increased mortality. Colonial travel and trade brought Europeans into contact with tropical fevers of all kinds, and the descriptions of the speed with which fevers sent them to their graves provided a sobering confirmation of the dangers of [End Page 459] leaving home. Fevers also were quite capable of becoming epidemics, and often were described, to adopt a commonly used metaphor, as a wild-fire: mysteriously spreading from one person or place to another, burning itself out of existence by its sheer intensity, and leaving behind a path of destruction. The experience with fevers was thus often sadly a collective experience in which great numbers of people were affected or destroyed. Eighteenth-century doctors saw fever as one of their primary concerns, and early conceptions of social medicine appeared in response to the high frequency of fever outbreaks in hospitals, jails, ships, orphanages, and slums. Lacking any conception of disease pathogens or their vectors, however, doctors mainly worked in the dark, and some of their treatments (notably, the use of blood-letting to cool a fever), undoubtedly did more damage than good. Fevers also played a powerful role in the formation of ideas about race, class, and gender, for the effort to decide why one person got sick while another did not was often based upon cultural assumptions, rather than clinical knowledge.
This latter dimension of fever interests Candace Ward, whose Desire and Disorder: Fevers, Fictions, and Feeling in English Georgian Culture is not so much a “rich description” of how eighteenth-century doctors and writers represented the experience of a fever than an attempt to use fever as an exploratory lens to examine the ideological nexus of disease, gender, class, and race in the construction of British identities during the Georgian period. Partially written during her tenure as a Fulbright scholar at the University of the West Indies, her book seeks to position eighteenth-century textual representations of “fever” within the larger context of British sentimental literature and culture. Fever writings, by which she means both literary and medical texts that discuss fever, played, she contends, “a regulatory and constitutive function” as they helped to reinforce British racial, gender, and class ideologies in the face of the disorder created by the “fevered body” (20).
Ward’s work belongs to a significant body of recent scholarship that treats medical texts as cultural documents open to literary interpretation. Central to her book is the claim that medical texts shared a commitment to verisimilitude that was central to the definition of the novel. Outstanding in this regard is her argument in chapter 1 that physicians and sentimental readers were brought together by the analogy of reading...