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Medicine and Narration in the Eighteenth Century

Edited by Sophie Vasset


Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford, 2013.

Paperback. viii+260 p. ISBN-13: 978-0729410656. £60.00


Reviewed by Suzy Halimi

Université Sorbonne-Nouvelle, Paris



This book follows and in a way brings a complement to the PhD of Sophie Vasset  Décrire, Prescrire, Guérir : Médecine et fiction dans la Grande-Bretagne du XVIIIe siècle, published in 2011. In the introduction, the editor defines "the theoretical premises" [1] of this collection of essays, an attempt to bring "new insights into the narrative structures of medical knowledge, and the medical questions at the heart of eighteenth-century fiction" [14]. Accordingly, the successive chapters examine the analogies and convergences of narrative techniques and strategies in medical discourses and various literary works. The book is divided into four parts, each composed of two or three articles, eleven contributions altogether. The cover illustration, a detail of Plate 5 of William Hogarth's Harlot's Progress (1732), showing two doctors in a hot debate while their patient is dying nearby, is a very relevant comment on the contents of the volume. The comparative approach has been chosen, with examples borrowed from English and French contexts, one chapter introducing the reader to oculist narratives in Germany. All the contributions, by several hands, are interrelated by a network of cross-references, which confers on the book an undeniable unity.

Part I brings side by side Diderot's La Religieuse (1780-1782) and John Ranby's Narration of the Last Illness of the Earl of Orford (1745). The French novel is based on a medical account of the pathology of women pent-up in convents, which seems to prove that medical cases can serve as a basis for fictional work. In the second article, the presentation by the surgeon of his treatment of his illustrious patient, the Prime Minister Robert Walpole, was criticised, we hear, not only on medical grounds but also for the style of the narrative. In both cases, there is an analogy between two types of narration: the medical and the literary, both authors insisting – as was usual in the works of fiction of the 18th century – on the authenticity of their account, "a story which belongs to the public" (pp. 38-39].

"The doctor's letters : epistolary narration" is the title of the second part composed of three contributions. The first one deals with the correspondence of Louis Odier (1748-1817) on the way of writing to fellow physicians, medical accounts presented in a literary style. Then come two parallel chapters revolving around the personalities and works of Dr. Cheyne and Samuel Richardson. First, the correspondence between Dr. Cheyne, the famous author of The English Malady, or a Treatise of nervous Diseases of all Kinds (1733), and the novelist, his patient and friend, "a fellow sufferer of the malady" [69], who had printed most of his works. Then an analysis of Richarson's last novel, Sir Charles Grandison (1753-54). Both illustrate a new approach to the patient-doctor relationship. The physician expatiates on "his hard-won struggle with morbid obesity" [68], and Richardson tells the story of a young lady, Clementina, suffering from a severe form of melancholy, her illness being related and discussed at length in the letters exchanged by all her relatives and friends. The epistolary style is common to both medicine and literature; in both cases, a medical case is freely commented upon in the public and private spheres.

The third part is entitled "Illness as narrative" – a title which, by the way, could have also suited the previous chapters – The three essays gathered here consider literary works dealing with medical subjects. The first one is devoted to Rousseau rejecting the diagnosis of melancholy and venereal disease passed by his doctors, because he was deeply concerned at the way his public image might suffer from the circulation of such rumours. Consequently, the man of letters developed his own self-diagnosis, formulating at the same time "an auto-critique of medicine" [133]. The next contribution considers several French writers defending or criticising the practice of inoculation introduced into Europe by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the pendant being developed in the last part of the article entitled "literature as inoculation" [136]. Finally, Smollett's Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753) is examined as a "novel of irritability", connecting once more the medical and the literary. Here, the Smollett reader may wonder whether a better example of an irritable character in Smollett's novels would not have been Matthew Bramble in Humphry Clinker (1771), the valetudinarian who sends long letters to his doctor – the epistolary style again, as in part II – complaining of all that affects his health and humour during his tour of Britain with his family.

In this last contribution, there are several relevant references to George Rousseau's work on health on the one hand, on the narrative mode in Smollett's novels on the other hand. One name is missing however in those pages, that of Paul-Gabriel Boucé, the Smollett specialist, who co-signed articles with G. Rousseau on health, sensibility and sexuality in eighteenth-century England and who wrote extensively on the use and misuse of the term " picaresque" to define the novels of adventure of the time [139 & notes].

The fourth and last part, "Medical strategies and narrative devices", is perhaps the least homogeneous, with a juxtaposition of Bernard de Mandeville's Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Diseases (1711), followed by oculist narratives in Jean Paul's novel Hesperus, oder 45 Hundposttage (1795),  and then by the obstetric epic, La Luciniade (1792-1815) by Jean-François Sacombe. Here are three fields of medecine which have little in common; besides, the context for Mandeville is early eighteenth-century England; Jean Paul and Jean-François Sacombe lived both at the other end of the "long eighteenth century" – one belongs to the Augustan Age, the others are on the verge of Romanticism: in-between there was an evolution both in medical strategies and narrative devices, which it would have been interesting to analyse as a conclusion to this last contribution of the book.

A few remarks to conclude, concerning minor points of presentation:

- It is not easy indeed to harmonize a collective work by several hands; yet, as we said before, a network of cross-references preserves the harmony of the whole. A little less convincing, however, is the choice of the titles to the four successive parts, some essays being susceptible of belonging to different parts, under different titles, which creates at times an impression of overlapping: examples have been given before.

- All the articles are in English, perfect English on the whole, with very few exceptions, where vocabulary and syntax betray too close a translation from the French original [passim 47-63 & 139-158].

- The summaries of the various articles given at the end of the volume are excellent and welcome. They could have been accompanied by short biographical notices of the contributors, which has become common practice in collective works. The readers of the book might like to know a little more about the authors of the several essays.

- In the table of contents, some of the works mentioned are given with their dates of publication, others are not.

 Those few remarks do not impair the very good quality of this original and illuminating study of "narrative in the intersection of two genres: the medical and the literary" [1].


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