“Mid-Nineteenth-Century British Women Writers and Resistive Embodiment”
The last decades of the eighteenth century witnessed the emergence of new ways of “seeing,” medical perception that privileged doctors’ findings over patients’ testimonies or illness narratives in ways that had far-reaching socio-cultural consequences, especially for women. By the second decade of the nineteenth century, anatomists, physiologists, and man-midwives had convincingly presented the female body as pathological to such a degree as to necessitate the formation of a new branch of medicine devoted to women’s health care: gynaecology. Thus, advances in scientific and medical knowledge contributed to social views that excluded women from professional endeavors. Simultaneous with the relegation of women to the domestic sphere, social authority consolidated in the hands of regulatory boards populated with medical men, which exempted women from public engagement in medical discourse that perpetuated their exclusion. Engaging with feminist, disability, and health humanities methodologies, this dissertation explores how nineteenth-century British women writers engaged with medical perception through their writing, how they used bodies, especially those defined as pathological, deformed, disabled, or otherwise non-normative, as loci of resistance against patriarchal bodily control. It further considers when this type of control became encoded as medical and why this discourse on embodiment in British women’s writing emerged in the second generation of Romanticism. I have coined the term “resistive embodiment,” to identify techniques of writing, at turns corporeal, rhetorical, formal, imaginative, or discursive that I find frequently occur in the author or character’s descriptions of bodies when bodies are depicted as agential, empowered to resist empirical discovery through methods of visual scrutiny, tactile investigation, or aural surveillance. This study analyzes resistive embodiment in various forms of women’s writing, including short stories, poetry, and novels, and it considers the foundational role that forms less recognized as literary, such as letters and diaries, play in the development of resistive embodiment.