Feigned Illness and Bodily Legibility in Eighteenth-Century British Culture
Monaghan, Jessica Kate
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
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The simulation of sickness intrigued British writers from the very beginning of the eighteenth century, attracting attention within a wide range of social spheres. Drawing upon texts from the fields of literature, medicine, theology, welfare policy, the military, and the law courts, this interdisciplinary thesis combines close textual analysis with an examination of social and cultural contexts in order to explain why the issue of feigned illness became such a prevalent and enduring source of debate in eighteenth-century Britain. Both the allure and the threat of simulated sickness lay in the ability of ill health to confer power upon the sufferer. On the one hand ill health might operate as a signifier of social or spiritual importance, yet sickness also functioned as a source of practical power, enabling emotional manipulation, exemption from social duties, and access to resources. The perceived benefits of ill health made the identification of simulated illness a matter of importance, yet the subject would not have attracted such attention were it not for prevailing doubts as to the legibility of the body. As this thesis indicates, the varied attitudes towards and representations of simulated sickness provide fascinating insights into the preoccupations of writers of different spheres and periods. Nevertheless, broader trends in attitudes towards bodily legibility and feigned illness are visible. Early eighteenth-century writers were generally wary of trusting external appearances, while the middle decades of the century were marked by an expression of faith in the natural legibility of the body, as demonstrated by the fashion for the literature of sensibility, acting through feeling, and the medico-literary rhetoric of nerves. Renewed scepticism towards the close of the century resulted in growing debates about the duty of medical practitioners to detect feigned illness, and the methods by which this might be accomplished. While the treatment of the subject evolved, its continued relevance highlights a sustained cultural preoccupation with the legibility of the body and its potential to mislead or even deceive, a subject that continued to fascinate writers to the very end of the eighteenth century.
Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
PhD in History