Fashionable diseases: medicine, literature and culture, c. 1660–1832
In the eighteenth century, as well as our own, certain diseases could be construed as endowing a sick person with some social or cultural cachet popularly associated with the illness. Melancholy could lend an air of creativity, gout could indicate class and wealth, and nerves could suggest a fashionable sensibility. A slight illness and enough wealth to travel could lead one to the spas and seaside resorts that, outside of London, formed the centres of fashionable society, or perhaps even lead abroad for warmer climes. As such, fashionable diseases also became the object of stigma, satire and allegations of fakery. They could be linked to the putative artificiality of 'manners,' modishness and the posturing of the beau monde. As Alexander Pope's poetic satire says of women in the 'Cave of Spleen,' 'The fair ones feel such maladies as these, When each new night-dress gives a new disease.' Yet while social discourses might define it as such, the afflicted might not find the experience of such diseases fashionable at all, but rather a reality of painful suffering.
This project interrogates the meanings of the word 'fashionable' when applied to disease, and particularly explores the ways in which the medicine, literature and culture of the eighteenth century define and represent often debilitating diseases as fashionable. It seeks to discover how labels alter our conceptions of disease and provide narratives that may be at variance with actual patient experience, or that might even construct that experience. We are especially interested in the role of literary writing in this 'construction' of a template for the experience of disease by sufferers. Our research aims to explore the differing discourses and representations of illnesses in the long eighteenth century to deliver a better understanding of the fashionability of disease in our own time