The Sickroom in Victorian Fiction: The Art of Being Ill (Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture)
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In this exploration of the significance of illness in the Victorian literary imagination Miriam Bailin maps the cultural implications and narrative effects of the sickroom as an important symbolic space in nineteenth-century life and literature. Dr Bailin draws on non-fictional accounts of illness by Julia Stephen, Harriet Martineau and others to illuminate the presentation of illness and ministration, patient and nurse, in the fiction of Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens and George Eliot. She argues that the sickroom functions as an imagined retreat from conflicts in Victorian society, and that fictional representations of illness serve to resolve both social conflict and aesthetic tension. Her concentration on the sickroom scene as a compositional response to insistent formal as well as social problems yields fresh readings of canonical works and approaches to the constituent elements of Victorian realist narrative.
sickroom scene within the context of contemporary mores and aesthetic preferences. The next three chapters concentrate on the narrative effects of the sickroom strategy as they intersect with the particular concerns and emphases of individual authors. And a final chapter briefly traces the ways in which late Victorian fiction reshapes the sickroom for its own purposes and in the process undoes its recuperative compromise. Although my discussion of illness addresses the complex and often 2 The
fully acknowledge nor utterly repudiate. She dies at the threshold of the cemetery. The separations among Esther, Lady Dedlock, and Captain Nemo (or "nobody") are thus maintained at the very moment of their reunion, a separation that is reinforced both by Esther's prior and subsequent illness.15 The attempt to shape an identity which keeps antithetical or undesirable elements separate holds out the prospect of a continual restless oscillation among the manifestations, both ghostly and
strangle it" (XXIVH63), it is preparatory to making the difficult choice of abandoning her lover, Don Silva, for her historical and racial destiny as a leader of the gypsy people in their search for a homeland. When Lucy Snowe in Charlotte Bronte's Villette says, "in catalepsy and a dead trance I studiously held the quick of my nature" (12), it is to steel herself against the pain of living in a society which could offer her neither satisfying love, stirring vocation, nor compelling identity. The
incarnations of their guilt and passion, live on as memorials to their own dead selves.15 In these first fictional productions the sickroom relation is repeatedly called upon to plug the gap between subject and object, between aggression and love, between truth and feeling. And in each instance the sickroom scene functions as a prelude to detachment. The achieved reconciliations, the higher feelings, the chastened desires reside in the private consciousness of a solitary figure. In "Janet's
1770-1870." Sociology 10 (1976): 225-244. Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. 2 vols. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952. Keefe, Robert. Charlotte Bronte's World of Death. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979. Kenyon, Fredric G., ed. The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1898. Kiely, Robert. " Plotting and Scheming: The Design of Design in Our Mutual Friend." Dickens Studies Annual: Essays on Victorian Fiction 12 ( 1 9 8 3 ) :