The Daily Dose presents: Dr. Charlotte Mathieson and “Traveling Bodies”

DailyDose2Welcome back to the Daily Dose, where humanities get medical and medicine waxes poetic! Today I am pleased to feature an admired colleague, Dr. Charlotte Mathieson. Her first monograph, Journeys in the Victorian Novel: Gendered Mobilities and the Place of the Nation, surprises and delights with its exploration of journeys (of bodies and space) in the mid-nineteenth century English novel (forthcoming Pickering and Chatto, March 2014). Thank you for joining us, Charlotte, and for sharing your thoughts on “traveling bodies”!

Author bio

Dr Charlotte Mathieson is a Research Fellow at the University of Warwick’s Institute of Advanced Study, where she researches and teaches 19th century literature. Her research focuses on journeys in the Victorian novel, with a particular interest in issues of nation, global space, and the traveling body in the works of authors including Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Charlotte Brontë. She is also interested in ideas of mobility and rural geography, the relationship between literature, nation, and place, and contemporary practices of literary tourism. Her first monograph Journeys in the Victorian Novel: Gendered Mobilities and the Place of the Nation is currently in preparation, and she is editing a collection of essays on Gender and Space in Rural Britain, 1840-1920 (forthcoming). Charlotte blogs at and can be found on Twitter @cemathieson


Bodies that Travel, Bodies that Change

It’s a pleasure to join the Daily Dose today, especially as I must start with the confession that I’m not a medical humanities scholar. My work on nineteenth-century English novels sits at the intersection of literary studies, history, geography, and travel /mobility studies. But at the centre of my critical explorations into the spaces and places, movements and mobilities, representational modes and structures of the novel, lies a fundamental interest in the human body. The ways in which bodies move through space – how landscapes and bodies interact, each leaving its mark upon the other – is core to my reading of travel in the novel. In Journeys in the Victorian Novel: Gendered Mobilities and the Place of the Nation I argue that traveling bodies offer crucial insights into the handling of national and global travel in the nineteenth century novel, intersecting with wider concerns around nation, place, and global space. In this post I offer a few examples of how traveling bodies appear and what they might offer in the way of critical developments.

Traveling bodies are everywhere and nowhere in the Victorian novel: they are often only briefly glimpsed, but these glimpses are increasingly apparent once you start looking more closely. One of the key ideas that I work with is a move away from the concept of “travel” as a term that connotes movements of leisure and pleasure, towards an idea of “mobility” as a more varied and nuanced notion incorporating a whole range of scales and types of movement. This concept starts with the premise that it’s the interactions between the mobile body and its environs – its responses to and through different geographies – that are of central importance in defining what constitutes a “journey”. This implicitly becomes a much more democratic concept, incorporating journeys that might not typically be recognised as travel: from this perspective, movement within the grounds of an English country house or within a rural village can be as interesting and indicative as far-reaching travels across the globe. The focus on material bodies also ensures a reading that is attentive to the dimensions of class, gender, race, nationality and other factors that constitute individual bodies, maintaining these elements as a crucial component of reading different travel practices.

This opens up a diverse and intriguing range of journeys in the novel , with a multitude of ways in which bodies are changed by their movement: bodies become ill through travel, wearied and worn out through long, arduous travels on foot; sick bodies become restored to good health by travel to spa towns and seaside resorts; white bodies become sunburnt, scorched and blistered by the fierce heat of foreign suns; closer to home, they might be shaken up by a railway journey, nerves fraught and frayed; or they are wrapped up in protective layers of traveling clothes and blankets that safely preserve against the dangers of industrial travel spaces.

One example that I’ve found especially intriguing is that of the sunburnt body: it’s at once a simple, ordinary facet of foreign travel and yet striking in just how frequently it recurs. When British travelers return from journeys into Europe and spaces further afield, texts repeatedly draw attention to the fact that the character has been sunburnt: novelists variously describe how these travelers have been “bronzed”, “tanned and retanned”, “burnt dark by the sun”, “grilled and blistered by the Sun”,  becoming such colours as a “deep brown”, “so extremely brown”, “a healthy bronze”, “a bronzed and coppery tint”, and a shade “between burnt sienna, Indian red, and Vandyke brown”.

Of course it isn’t unusual that a traveller would be sunburnt – these travelers are all white British subjects who have journeyed to the “solar heats of India” and the “high hothouse heat of the West Indies”. But I was struck by the frequent recurrence of this as a feature in otherwise brief mentions of journeys, and how typically it was the only identifying feature given. Contrary to what we might at first expect, these instances are not especially resonant with discourses that assert the racial inferiority of the dark foreign other, or the more generalised sense of foreigners as dark-haired, swarthy figures that recurs throughout 19th century novels. Only one example that I’ve found specifically uses the trope of sunburn to articulate a fear of becoming darker; instead, as the examples above show, it’s typically not darkness but a range of brown, bronze and red hues that are presented.

Instead, what is always noted in these instances is the way in which the skin is damaged, often described as grilled, blistered and burnt by the ferocity of the foreign sun. What I think is perhaps going on with this image is that it’s not so much an idea about skin colour, but perhaps more importantly an idea about bodily damage that is the core concern here. The physical borders of the body are revealed as susceptible and permeable to harm, eroded by foreign contact in such a way that gestures towards an inherent vulnerability and instability of bodily surfaces. This is important because those bodily surfaces are so often asserted as essential to demarcating the place of the British body as distinct from its surrounding environs, bordering off the subject from contact with the otherness of foreign space; here, that vital surface is revealed as fragile and insufficient.

This is just one example of how bodies might be changed by travel, and what I’m interested in doing is charting the geographies of how these bodies undergo multiple and changing formulations over the course of a novel, and thinking about what this tells us about some of the novels’ wider concerns around the implications of the new travel possibilities of the nineteenth century. I hope that this will open up different ways in which to read bodies in literature, moving beyond a dichotomy of illness/health into a multifaceted understanding of how travel impacts upon the body. I also hope that introducing frameworks from feminist and cultural geography offers a productive mode through which to expand the interpretative possibilities of bodies. Bodies are more than just bodies: as material sites they form part of a wider geography, and their interactions with other places and spaces offer crucial insights into the changing socio-cultural landscapes of the nineteenth century.


The Daily Dose: A Subject Dark and Intricate

Welcome to Literary Medicine: The Daily Dose (companion to the Fiction Reboot).

I have been talking at length recently about the discipline required for being a professional fiction writer–a philosophy corroborated by my interviews with authors. However, we should not forget that that same discipline–the ability to work, work, work on a writing project–is also necessary to the researcher in any field. Let me raise a toast to my colleagues of literature, medicine, history and anthropology for their diligence, their sacrifice of time and energy (and social life, at times) to bring us incredible work! After all, it is hard work I am finding–less eviscerating than the dissertation process, but requiring an incredible force of will. And glue. To paste your rear to the desk-chair

Today, I am featuring the short description of my monograph, “A Subject Dark and Intricate”: Identity Dissolution and Mental Disruption in Eighteenth-Century Gothic Fiction. Including five chapters, an introduction and a coda, this has been the work of several months (and promises to be the work of at least six more). I hope you enjoy it; I will be putting further updates on my main website’s research page.


Introduction (brief)

A Subject Dark and Intricate explores the proliferation of electrical, neurological and reproductive sciences at the often cited naissance of Gothic literature at the “other” fin de siècle: the end of the eighteenth century. Such texts provide an unusually robust picture of the unexplained psychological phenomena—and the increasing proliferation of disease categories from medical science—threatening Enlightenment ideals of rational identity and the perspicuity of knowledge. Gothic fictions use their conventions to explore the margins of identity at a time when Locke, Hume and Kant were providing a dialogue about unity of consciousness, rooting existence in perception and suggesting we lose identity when we sleep or die. It is this disruption of continuity that forms (and informs) the threat to identity dissolution underscoring early Gothic texts. Contextualizing these fictions in the often weird and wonderful medical and scientific constructions of the age and offering a cultural-historical account of their significance, this project provides new insight into the monstrosity not primarily of the supernatural (or the super ego), but of the disturbed nerves, the disrupted minds, the dissolving identity boundaries of pre-Victorian tales of horror and intrigue.

Laudatory for the heroines of sensibility, the indulgence of the mind frequently becomes dangerous employment in the gothic tale. In Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, Emily St. Aubert sinks into a dangerous reminiscence that “rendered her at times sensible to the ‘thick-coming fancies’ of a mind greatly enervated.”[1] During such times, Radcliffe warns, “nothing less than momentary madness” takes possession of the heroine,[2] a “temporary failure of mind.”[3]This relationship between the Gothic and physical and mental disturbances has been frequently remarked upon; Terry Castle recognizes the comparative importance of déjà vu to Udolpho in The Female Thermometer: “the principle of déjà vu dominates both the structure of human relations in Udolpho and the phenomenology of reading.”[4] Claudia Johnson, in Equivocal Beings, makes a similarly gendered and politicized argument about the haunting nature of mental anguish: “assailed by the restless anguish of the dead and, even worse, by the restless cruelty of the living.”[5] Yet these symptoms do not exist independently. Accompanying visions, anguish and the re-memory of déjà vu are examples of misjudging senses, strange visions and a propensity for fainting. Taken together, these are signs of a larger disorder—even if the link is not clinically explained. Diseases and their symptoms pre-exist scientific authentication, and literature often serves as a vehicle—even a proving ground—for unexplained physical phenomena. In my own work on Udolpho, I have called this capability the mediation of a symptomatic text, wherein manifestations of a disorder (epilepsy in the case of Udolpho) are linked to the Gothic’s preoccupation with dreamy or altered states. What might be learned from a medical view of eighteenth-century Gothic narrative? What might the context of contemporary brain science reveal about the end of the English Enlightenment and the beginning of an Age of Melancholy? And finally, what might this tell us about the dissolution of self, the boundaries of identity and the burgeoning science of psychology undergirding Gothic texts of the nineteenth century?

[1] Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho.(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 102.

[2]Radcliffe, 102.

[3]Radcliffe, 103.

[4] Castle, Terry. The Female Thermometer.(New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 127.

[5] Johnson, Claudia L. Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender and Sentimentality in the 1790s.(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 94.


The Daily Dose: Vampires and VD

Welcome to Literary Medicine’s Daily Dose (Companion to the Fiction Reboot). The following excerpt is from research (ongoing) into a syphilitic reading of Dracula. Below I begin parsing some of the unusual history of degeneration and disease. Tune in tomorrow for more from the Fiction Reboot!


Vampiric and Syphilitic Contagion

Van Helsing warns that the vampire is not a single foe but a potential army: “[T]o fail here,” he tells the Harkers, “is not mere life or death. It is that we become as him, that we henceforward become foul things of the night like him, without heart or conscience, preying on […] those we love best” (Stoker 243). The vampire’s ability not only to absorb but to transmit life, or rather, to transfer un-life, means that contagion and reproduction are intrinsically linked. Stephen Arata considers this the threat of deracination and reverse colonization, wherein “the ‘civilized’ world is on the point of being colonized by ‘primitive’ forces” (Arata 623). But in the case of venereal disease, the primitive forces are bacterium, spread through sexual contact and through human generation. The link between syphilis and birth had been discovered as early as the 16th century (about 100 years after the initial European outbreak), but as debates began to focus on parental responsibility and social reform, the diseased infant became politically significant. Partly due to better diagnostics and the separation of syphilitic symptomology from gonorrhea, the latter part of the 19th century saw an explosion of syphilis cases, resulting in problematic control of contagion (and even more problematic legislation). Thus, though syphilis was a disease unto itself, it became a metaphor for disease by the fin de siècle—a “trope for social and cultural degeneration” (Smith 95). It would also become a battle ground over sexual violation, women’s rights and reproductive health.

In the 1860s, the Contagious Disease Acts sanctioned forced medical examination of women rumored to be prostitutes. These women (usually of the working class) were considered solely responsible for the spread of the contagion—an idea that had not changed much since the first outbreak in 1494 (Diday 2). Activist Josephine Butler successfully lead the charge to repeal the Acts in 1886 by representing the prostitute as the victim and the male client as the villain (Smith 97). Butler uses quotes from prostitutes that re-figure their role and responsibility: “To please a man I did wrong first, then I was flung about from man to man. Men police lay hands on us. But men we are examined, handled, doctored. In the hospital it is a man again who makes prayer and reads the Bible for us. We are had up before magistrates who are men, and we never get out of the hands of men till we die” (Butler, “The Garrison of Kent,” Sheild. 9 May 1870. Qtd. in Smith, 97). The medical treatment—mercury, usually, and sometimes iodine—was administered in various ways: by mouth, by unction (rubbed on the skin), by fumigation and by hypodermic syringe (Cooper 321-24). Butler, in recording the complaints of prostitutes, suggest that the medical cure was, itself, tantamount to a kind of rape “legitimiz[ing] a cruel and irrational sexual violation, one that inflicted pain and mutilation on women” (Bulter, letter to Joseph Edmonson 1872, Qtd. in Smith 98). Butler re-creates the prostitute in these narratives as an innocent victim of male lust and perverse doctors—and echoes of this rhetoric are present also in the “cure” of Dracula’s vampire infection. Lucy Westenra’s treatment includes opiates, also given to the syphilis sufferer and mixed with other medicines; she is surrounded by garlic flowers, while the syphilis patient undergoes fumigation treatments. Ultimately, however, the cure for Lucy’s vampirism is the needle and the stake.


While I am still working out the details of this interesting project, you can hear a podcast concerning it at Sick City Talks (interview by Richard Barnett, London, UK). I will also include a list of useful sources, though this is by no means exhaustive. Look for more on this project to come; I will be presenting it at the 10th Global Conference on Monsters and the Monstrous, Oxford, UK.


Arata, Stephen D. The Occidental Tourist: “Dracula” and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization Victorian Studies, 33. 4 (Summer, 1990), pp. 621-645

Brothers, Abram. Infantile Mortality During Child-Birth and its Prevention. Philidelphia: P Blakiston, Son and Co., 1896. Reprint.

Carrick, John Donald. The Laird of Logan; or, Wit of the West: being a collection of anecdotes, jests and comic tales. [First-second series], Volume 1 London, 1835, 120. Google eBooks. Accessed 6/12/2012.

Cooper, Alfred. Syphilis and Pseudo-Syphilis. London: JA Churchill, 1884. Reprint.

Diday, Charles Joseph Paul Edouard. A Treatise on Syphilis in New-Born Children and Infants at the Breast. Trans. G. Whitley, M.D. [London] New York, [1859] 1883. Reprint.

Halberstam, Judith “Technologies of Monstrosity: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Victorian Studies, 36:3. Victorian Sexualities (Spring, 1993), pp. 333-352.

“On Monsters,” The Spectator, Volume 68: March 26, 1892. Google eBooks. Accessed 6/12/2012.

Paré, Ambroise. On Monsters and Marvels. Trans. Janis Pllister. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1982.

Pinkerton, John. A general collection of the best and most interesting voyages and travels in all parts of the world. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1809. Google eBooks. Accessed 6/10/2012.

Smith, Andrew. Victorian Demons: Medicine, Masculinity and the Gothic at the Fin de Siècle. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004.

Spongeberg, Mary. Feminizing Venereal Disease: The Body of the Prostitute in Nineteenth- Century Medical Discourse. Baskingstoke: MacMillian, 1997.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Ed. John Paul Riquelme. Boston: Bedford St. Martin Press, 2002.