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Cruel Disorder": Female Bodies, Eighteenth-Century Fever Narratives, and the Sentimental Novel CANDACE WARD The lady had been silent a few minutes, and speechless, . . . moving her lips without uttering a word. . . . Oh, Mr. Belford, said she in broken periods; and with a faint inward voice, but very distinct nevertheless—Now! Now! (I bless God for His mercies to his poor creature) will all soon be over—A few—a very few moments—will end this strife—and I shall be happy! ... What is dying but the common lot? The mortal frame may seem to labour—but that is all!—It is not so hard to die, as I believed it to be!—The preparation is the difficulty... . [D]own sunk her head upon her pillow, she fainting away, and drawing from us her hands. We thought she was then gone.... But soon showing signs of returning life, our attention was again engaged;... She... bowed her head... several times... and she spoke faltering and inwardly: Bless—bless—bless— you all—and now—and now (holding up her almost lifeless hands for the last time)—come—Oh come—blessed Lord— JESUS! And with these words, the last but half-pronounced, expired. (Samuel Richardson, Clarissa Harlowe, 1747-48) ' 93 94 / WARD [The delirium may be accompanied by] universal Tremours and ... as it were a Confusion of Thought and Action, [the patients] muttering continually to themselves, and faultering in their Speech: Sometimes they awake only in a Hurry and Confusion, and presently recollect themselves, but forthwith fall into a muttering dozy State again.... Now Nature sinks apace, the Extremities grow cold, the Nails pale or livid, the Pulse may be said to tremble and flutter rather than to beat, the Vibrations being so exceeding weak and quick, that they can scarce be distinguished; tho' sometimes they creep on surprisingly slow.... The Delirium ... ends in a profound Coma, and that soon in Eternal Sleep.— . . .The vast Tremblings of the Nerves and Tendons are Preludes to a general Convulsion, which at once snaps off the Thread of Life.—In one or other of these Ways are the Sick carried off, after having languished on for fourteen, eighteen, or twenty Days; nay sometimes much longer. (John Huxham, Essay on Fevers, 1757)2 Recent critics of the sentimental novel have noted the influence of eighteenth-century medical writings, particularly nerve theories, on fictional texts featuring sensible heroes and heroines.3 I have found, however, that reading the novel of sensibility—until recently dismissed by scholars as exaggerated, implausible, and melodramatic—against medical fever narratives of the same period reveals that the relationship between the two genres is not limited to the fictionalization of "scientific" discourse in the novels. Indeed, as the above quotations illustrate, physicians deployed the same emotional rhetoric the novelists did. John Huxham's description of a fever patient's death bears an element of pathos as rich as John Belford's report of Clarissa Harlowe's final hours. Both observers impart the need for close scrutiny of the dying body, necessitated by almost indiscernible vital signs, most poignantly by the trembling and fluttering pulse. Both descriptions are couched in hushed and reverent tones, articulated through a vocabulary resonant with key sentimental images. Sinking, fainting, and faltering, their speech lapsing into inarticulate utterances, the heroine and patient languish under the gaze of the observer. Vocabulary, tone, even the dashes and colons that punctuate the respective scenes, belong to what recent critics of the sentimental novel, following Julia Kristeva's theory of semiotics, have classified as conventions of women's writing.4 Clearly, as the presence of such conventions demonstrates, the relationship between fever narratives and sentimental novels—until now "Cruel Disorder": Female Bodies, Eighteenth-Century Fever / 95 unexamined—is reciprocal. Both participated in the culture of sensibility that reached its height in the mid- to late-eighteenth century and both were powerfully informed by it. More importantly, I will argue that the period's fever narratives and novels of sensibility together stand as cultural cornerstones of a sentimental discourse that attempted to allay the anxieties a sensible feminized body provoked by constructing an authoritative reader of that body—the eighteenth-century medical practitioner. The perceived need...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1938-6133
Print ISSN
0360-2370
Pages
pp. 93-121
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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