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  • The Secret Malady: Venereal Disease in Eighteenth-Century Britain and France
  • Andrea Rusnock
Linda E. Merians, ed. The Secret Malady: Venereal Disease in Eighteenth-Century Britain and France. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996. viii + 269 pp. Ill. $39.95 (cloth), $19.95 (paperbound).

This volume includes fifteen essays on syphilis and gonorrhea in the eighteenth century; the first eight are historical, the remaining seven literary. Together, they form a rich, multilayered picture of contemporary views, understandings, and management of venereal disease in France and Britain. Several themes stand out: first, the increasing tendency to condemn women for the spread of the secret malady; second, the growing importance of a nationalist discourse that stressed the need for a growing, healthy population and hence mandated state medical surveillance and intervention; and third, the gradual change in therapy from heroic salivation treatments to more moderate regimens.

The secret malady affected women in more ways than physical. Sexually promiscuous men often boasted of their bouts of clap as a mark of honor, and little shame attended the husband who infected his wife. Women were not treated as tolerantly and were increasingly blamed for the spread of infection (see the essay by Betty Rizzo). While episodes of venereal disease among aristocratic [End Page 118] men continued to be viewed casually, over the course of the eighteenth century venereal disease became a symbol of corruption and decay, especially of women. Restoration dramas that made satiric use of the clap and pox were replaced by moralistic representations that usually linked women with the destruction wrought by venereal disease—for example, Hogarth’s prints and Rétif de la Bretonne’s novel Le paysan perverti (see the essays by Rose A. Zimbardo, Leon Guilhamet, April London, and Diane Fourny).

As several of the authors point out, prostitution and venereal disease were not necessarily linked during the seventeenth century; they only became so over the course of the eighteenth. Kathryn Norberg develops this theme in her essay “From Courtesan to Prostitute,” marking the last third of the eighteenth century as the critical period in France for this transformation in public perception. Beginning with Rétif de la Bretonne’s Le pornographe, ou les idées d’un honnête homme sur un projet de règlement pour les prostituées (Paris, 1767), calls for the regulation of prostitution to combat growing fears about depopulation cemented the association of prostitution, venereal disease, moral corruption, and declining population, and hence legitimated state regulation. Women, especially prostitutes, became the objects of police surveillance.

Many of the essays contain detailed accounts of the grueling mercury treatments for syphilis (see the essays by Susan P. Conner, Philip K. Wilson, and Mary Margaret Stewart). The unpleasantness of the accepted therapy contributed to a proliferation of alternative medicines such as John Burrows’s vegetable remedy, and (later in the century) to the efforts to moderate mercury therapies frequently undertaken in institutions founded to care specifically for individuals suffering from syphilis, such as the London Lock Hospital and the Paris Hospice des Vénériens (see the essays by Susan P. Conner and Linda E. Merians). Although venereal disease was the secret malady, the public demand for writings on the topic seemed insatiable. As the essays by Roy Porter, Marie E. McAllister, and Linda E. Merians show, the rhetorical strategies adopted by physicians who wrote about venereal disease were practically indistinguishable from those of quacks.

There is much to commend in this volume, but it suffers from the common ill attending similar collections of essays—namely, the absence of an integrated, comparative narrative linking the separate articles. A more lengthy, detailed introduction, and perhaps a conclusion, would help the reader negotiate the changing status and treatment of venereal disease in eighteenth-century Britain and France, and would signal the differences between the two countries.

Andrea Rusnock
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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