Embodying Nature: Medicine, Law, and the Female Gothic
In this study, I analyze eight novels from the tumultuous decade ofthe 1790s: Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1793) and The Italian (1798); Eliza Parsons' The Castle of Wolfenbach (1793) and Eleanor Sleath's The Orphan of the Rhine (1798); Regina Maria Roche's The Children of the Abbey (1796) and Clermont (1798); Eliza Fenwick's Secresy; or, the Ruin on the Rock (1796) and Mary Wollstonecraft's The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria (1798). The novels I examine are unified not only by the decade in which they were written, but also by the discursive fields that shape their presentation of the female body. My analysis, influenced by the poststructuralist work of Michel Foucault and by feminist studies, focuses on specific cultural fields that enable me to approach the female Gothic in its rich historical dimensions.
I illustrate that eighteenth-century medicine and law exerted considerable influence over the ways in which women perceived themselves, their bodies, their choices, their virtue. Because neither medical nor legal discourse is seamless, the Gothic novelists I examine are able to respond with their own versions of female physicality as they attempt to imagine women's agency. Exposing the ideological work of such dominant discourses, the novels in this study offer representations ofthe female subject that break down binaries of mind and body, as well as reason and emotion. Since the heroines reflect an embodied self that might participate in self-determination, I focus on particular medical and legal attempts to inscribe the female body. In turn, I demonstrate that the heroines often deploy a rhetoric ofjustice that empowers their struggles to overcome physical determinism.
I argue that female Gothic novelists were intimately aware that certain popular medical ideas created barriers between them and their claims to natural and legal rights. It is my claim that as medicine studies, explains, defines, cures, and confines the body, it shapes women's relationship to the legal discourse that offers or denies them political identity. In turn, I assert that the novelists' creation ofa recognizable female protagonist indicates their attempts to imagine a subject that can maintain physical, emotional, and moral integrity in the face of injustice. In the interstices between body and emotion, public and private, justice and love, these women construct the Gothic female self.