Food for Sympathy: Illness, Nursing, and Affect in Victorian Literature and Culture
Doctor of Philosophy
The profuse illness and nursing narratives in Victorian texts frequently feature sympathy for physical suffering as a major cultural and literary trope. In a wide variety of texts ranging from social reform writing to autobiographies, from novels to poetry, physical suffering was often closely associated with a specific cultural form of affect called sympathy. While earlier epistemologies of sympathy developed by Scottish Enlightenment writers defined it as a free agent that autonomously flowed through individuals, toward the mid-century, this model left its place to formulations of sympathy as an alignment of affect between clearly separated subjects that could be achieved through sympathetic imagination. This epistemological and cultural shift is strongly apparent in both fictional and nonfinctional depictions of sympathy for the sick. Critical works on the nineteenth-century culture of illness and medical care have tended to focus on the community-building functions of the sickroom. However, the illness-nursing dyad constitutes an affective structure through which some less examined aspects of sympathy for physical suffering, such as the alterity and abjection of bodies in pain, can be explored. Descriptions of physical suffering usually followed certain narrative conventions that positioned the sufferers and their nurses as objects or subjects of sympathy. This particular object-subject relationship facilitated the construction, negotiation, and redefinition of collective identities like nationality, gender, and class. While nursing memoirs and conduct manuals adhered to conventional ideals of femininity, they also expanded definitions of feminity and maternalism to include competence. In their war nursing memoirs, unprivileged or marginalized women who worked as nurses were able to inscribe themselves as professional women and national subjects by contributing to the national narratives of the war with soothing narratives of their nursing experience. In Bildungsromans, their sympathy for disabled male companions enabled socially and economically disenfranchised male protagonists to reconstruct wounded masculinity as a hegemonic masculinity model. Destabilized social identities, on the other hand, culminated in novelistic examples of resistance to sympathy on the level of character or narrative, which the authors used as a representational strategy to approach dilemmas for which there are no solutions.
British and Irish literature; Literature