- Anxious Times: Medicine and Modernity in Nineteenth-Century Britain by Amelia Bonea et al.
Although it has four authors, Anxious Times is a monograph, whose chapters function as case studies for exploring nineteenth-century cultural anxieties about modernity and its physical and mental effects. Shuttleworth has written the Introduction and Conclusion, which successfully draw these studies together, while each of the other three authors has assumed primary responsibility for two of the book's six chapters. Bonea, Dickson, Shuttleworth, and Wallis have done an excellent job of maintaining a consistent voice throughout, and thus the joint authorship is never a distraction from the larger argument of the book: that Victorians were acutely aware that they were living through significant cultural shifts, and that they located the anxieties this generated at the site of various troubled and troubling spaces and bodies.
Anxious Times begins with an exploration of the discourses of labor, the workplace, and health. Starting with the early eighteenth-century work of the Italian Bernardino Ramazzini on the diseases of workers, the first chapter traces the reception and transformation of ideas about occupational health in relation to the consolidation of industrial capitalism. Chapter 2 interrogates the ways in which the telegraph and the telephone both bridged the space between doctor and patient and, unexpectedly, created the space necessary for particular kinds of diagnostic conditions. The chapter on the British seaside resort that follows reveals that these were not unproblematic safe havens for those seeking the curative properties of fresh air. Instead their natural, urban, and domestic environments generated new anxieties about social proximity and the spread of epidemic diseases. Chapter 4 investigates the moral panic generated by female alcoholics whose rampant secret drinking (sometimes in public spaces), it was widely reported, undermined the family, the nation, and the social structure. Chapter 5 focuses on schoolchildren whose minds, brains, and bodies were, it was feared, compromised by the new pressures of the compulsory education system, which increasingly focused on rewarding schools for the demonstrated learning outcomes of their students. The final chapter documents the notable increase in nervous disorders at the turn of the century and their relationship to Darwinism, degeneration, and related concerns about the human species.
Each of these well-written chapters provides an engaging account of the novelty of these phenomena and how they were worked out in a range of nineteenth-century texts. Although the primary focus of the book is Britain, the authors very usefully reach beyond the British Isles to make connections with continental Europe, the United States, and in some cases Britain's white settler colonies. The book is explicitly interdisciplinary, drawing on literary texts, journalism, medical texts and the medical press, as well as on a range of other published historical sources. The combination of cultural history and literary criticism works well in most of the chapters. However, given that this book has been categorized by its publisher as [End Page 302] History of Medicine, historians may feel that some of the chapters are overly reliant on Victorian literature and may have benefitted even more from the fruitful collaboration between the authors. That no archival sources have been deployed also feels like a missed opportunity to make use of the widest possible source base and more explicitly historical modes of analysis. Nevertheless, the strengths of the book far outweigh these relatively minor issues. As a whole it provides a very useful addition to the scholarly literature on modernity and medicine, and each of the chapters make productive contributions to their particular historiographies. Written in an accessible manner, the book or extracted chapters would work well in both undergraduate and graduate classrooms.
Anxious Times succeeds in historicizing nineteenth-century anxieties about modernity's effects on the human body and mind. But it also underscores their legacies. It is difficult not to feel dogged by ongoing concerns about the effects of our work on our health, the ever-expanding...