Session 9A: Romantic Fevers

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9A. Romantic Fevers

Special Session: Patricia deMeo (Dalhousie)
Katherine T. Meiners (Moorhead State): "Suffering, Rehabilitation, Reputation: Sara and S.T. Coleridge"
Candace Ward (Illinois State): "'A Fit of Illness': Sick Bodies and Aching Hearts"
Jock Murray (Dalhousie): "Medicine in Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo"
Marcia Allentuck (City U of NY):"Sir Humphrey Davy's Salmonia: Romantic Ecocriticism and the Angling Cure"

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"'A Fit of Illness': Sick Bodies and Aching Hearts"
Candace Ward
Illinois State University

Romantic literature's famous fevered body-particularly well-illustrated in the political novel of the 1790s-can be traced back to the sick body that played such a crucial role in earlier novels of sensibility. There, as in the later novels, the exquisitely sensitive body facilitated the exploration of cultural malaise. Indeed, I would argue that the sick body constitutes a direct link between eighteenth-century sensibility, with its literature's intense scrutiny of the body, and Romanticism's use of the sick body as metaphor for the sick polity. To demonstrate this connection, I want to look at two novels, one published at the height of the cult of Sensibility, and one published in its decline during the century's last decade.

Frances Sheridan's Memoirs of Sidney Bidulph (1761) contains a number of ill and/or fevered bodies, including those inhabited by sensible individuals whose physical symptoms reflect emotional turmoil. But the most astonishing sick body in Sheridan's novel provides an occasion for the exploration and extension of its representative powers. This particular body appears suddenly in the text, as part of a digressive subplot that lasts a few pages, then disappears. In brief, a nameless young woman has been forbidden to marry the man she loves, an up-and-coming young physician, because he is an unsuitable match. Immediately following this injunction, she receives a hurt in her breast falling from a chair. This accident threw her into a fit of illness--specifically, a fever. Because the fever, her apparent complaint, is highly visible, the chest wound goes untreated and becomes infected. After a bungling surgeon tortures her for nearly three months, he determines that the only way to save the woman's life is to remove her breast. At the last minute, however, the lover, who has been allowed to witness the procedure, stops the surgeon (dramatically poised to make the incision), asks to examine the breast, and saves it.

Here the sick body-specifically, the injured breast-constitutes a site of resistance to the way women's desires are subordinated to considerations of property, and the way treatment of the female body is determined by the heavy-handed dictates of patriarchal authority, including a newly emerging medical profession. Of course, the scene does not advocate the overthrow of masculine authority; after all, the young woman is rewarded with marriage. But it does present the sensible body as locus of resistance. Moreover, though this challenge is much more tentative in this early novel, and the significance of the sick body is more literal (breast = heart, etc.), it paves the way for the more emphatic symbolism present in later works.

Thirty years later, Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story presents another story of a suffering female body. As in Sheridan's novel, the sick body (and the intense scrutiny which it provokes) promises to effect a comic resolution of the plot: suffering from unrequited love, the heroine becomes ill due to a suppressed passion for her guardian (who happens to be young, handsome, and a Catholic priest). Happily, the resulting sickness brings him to Miss Milner's bedside, where the sight of her fevered body excites his own emotions. The illness conveniently coincides with Dorriforth's release from his priestly vows and his assumption of the title Lord Elmwood; Miss Milner's health is restored and the two are soon married.

The cure of the sick female body brought on by a happy marriage echoes the young woman's story in Sidney Bidulph. But there is another sick body in A Simple Story, the inclusion of which prevents the comic resolution. The intrusion of this body demonstrates the move away from more literal interpretations that relied on the spectacle of the sick body, to the symbolic disease of the social order. Unlike the female body sickened by emotional distress, Elmwood (once Dorriforth) becomes sick when he leaves England to oversee his West Indian plantation. The absence occasioned by this colonialist enterprise, is prolonged by a severe and dangerous illness. When he finally recovers his health and is able to return to England, he discovers that his wife has been unfaithful, and that his marriage is over.

The significance of Elmwood's illness can be seen as part of a larger political statement addressing the implications of the British plantation system. Though Elmwood's body recovers, his soul has sickened, and he has become a hard-hearted tyrant; I would argue that the fever that leads to the disintegration of his marriage also symbolizes the fears and tensions produced by Britain's participation in the West Indies plantation culture.

In this paper, I plan to discuss the ways the West Indies/tropics were often portrayed as the site of unwholesomeness-in terms of the health of European colonists-and the tensions produced by the British economy's reliance on West Indies trade. I'll also cite the parallels between the diseased body and the intense stress occasioned by the threat of slave revolts that occurred throughout the eighteenth century. I will relate another connection between the two novels by describing a character in Sheridan's novel who has also traveled to the West Indies, where his health declines.

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Last updated June 1, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell