Sick Rooms, Death-Beds, and Operating Theatres: Gothic Medical Spaces in the Fiction of Lucas Malet

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Lucas Malet (Mary St Leger Harrison) was a popular novelist of the late-nineteenth century, now largely forgotten. This paper will examine the spaces of illness and death that appear as sites of medical anxiety and trauma in Malet’s Victorian fiction. These are invariably Gothic spaces, haunted by the spectre of sickness, containing the graphic ‘bloody horror’ of death, or scenes of macabre disfigurement. Colonel Enderby’s Wife (1885) depicts a phobia of infirmity and the sick room. The Wages of Sin (1891) describes the final, fatal utterances of a blood-soaked consumptive from her death-bed. The History of Sir Richard Calmady (1901) details a pre-anaesthetic surgical amputation in the drawing room of a stately home. The rooms are often characterised by their red furnishings, ‘red rooms’ which transcend Jane Eyre’s symbolic site of hysteria to become locations of crisis in which physical threats are both generated and realised.

The body, too, is rendered an unstable site whose subjectivity is called into question by the presence of uncontrollable symptoms or bodily rupture. These medical events are visually described or imagined, overheard from beyond a door, or implied through aposiopesis in the dialogue. The medical, surgical, and narrative fragmentation of the human subject within these spaces articulates the iatrogenic anxieties of the nineteenth century. With a moral-medical rhetoric typical of fin-de-siècle writing, pathology and malaise are presented as likewise blighting the national body; mass muteness, collective convulsions, and widespread atavism are perceived to affect hordes of ‘waste humanity’. Malet was fond of insisting that she wrote ‘like the man of science’. Her novels themselves are ‘moral dissecting rooms’, sites of vivisection, in which she scrutinises the search for wholeness by the human subject.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 8 Jun 2017
EventMedicine and Mystery: The Dark Side of Science in Victorian Fiction: Victorian Popular Fiction Association Study Day - National University of Ireland, Galway
Duration: 8 Jun 20178 Jun 2017


ConferenceMedicine and Mystery: The Dark Side of Science in Victorian Fiction


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