Jessica Monaghan

Department: History
Discipline: History
Research Centre/Unit: History of Medicine

Project Summary

"Simulating sickness: Perceptions of feigned illness within eighteenth-century British literature and culture"

The stigma attached to various illnesses throughout history has long been recognised, but it is the converse potential for illness to confer positive social characteristics upon the sufferer that forms the basis for my research. I am currently analysing perceptions of illness as a commodity within British literature and society between 1700 and 1830, and examining concerns over the possibility of counterfeit illness.

Developments during the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries rendered the moral, social and physical connotations of illness a particularly acute concern for members of the upper- and middle-classes of Britain, creating the conditions in which illness resembled a commodity over which one could assert intellectual authority or even ownership, and which might be simulated for personal gain. My research explores this issue in the context of the rise in prominence and quantity of novels and vernacular medical texts during this period. Both genres of literature responded to and in turn fuelled public appetites for fashionable illnesses, representing conditions such as nervous illness as products and signifiers of moral and social qualities such as wealth or mental refinement and sympathy. At the same time, philosophers and social critics were debating the dangers of artifice within society, which, combined with preoccupations over delineating social status, gave rise to fears that aspiring social climbers might employ the semblance of fashionable illness as a means to social advancement.

I am currently considering both the nature of particular illnesses that appear to have provoked suspicions of inauthenticity and the locations in which malingerers were perceived to be prevalent, most recently researching the topics of hypochondria and also fashionable health resorts.

In this project I am implementing an interdisciplinary approach, combining literary and historical traditions in order to bring together key themes of eighteenth and early nineteenth-century history and culture in a fashion that reflects the crucial interaction of discourses of medicine, literature, and social conduct in Britain at this time.

Supervisory Team

Primary supervisor: Prof. Jonathan Barry

Secondary supervisor: Prof. Nick Groom