This scholarly study examines "what it meant to ’talk of diseases’ in the second half of the nineteenth century" (2) and how discourses of health and illness were a vehicle for exploring individual and social identities, including gendered, racialized, and national identities. Narratives of physical illness are not simply artifacts of Victorian medical culture, Vrettos argues, but offer examples of the pervasive "master narratives" that shaped Victorian middle-class culture.

Individual chapters focus on the ill female body as an expressive text with variable legibility (and on nurses as privileged readers of ill bodies); "nervous illness" and the role of narrative in reconstructing the self; "neuromimesis" or neurotic imitation of disease; and the "politics of fitness and its relation to imperialist ideology." Vrettos discusses fictional works by Louisa May Alcott, (Hospital Sketches; see this database) Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot (Middlemarch; see this database), H. Rider Haggard, Henry James, Bram Stoker, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.


The book makes a sophisticated argument about the ways in which stories of sickness promise but ultimately fail to stabilize shifting ideas about social identities by anchoring them to the physical body. Vrettos is particularly attentive to the wide and changing array of cultural identities produced by Victorian stories about bodies, health, and illness, and careful to resist grand conclusions about the permanence of such identities or the control of their production.

While the book is classified as "literature/women’s studies," it integrates several important emphases within medical humanities, including narrative theories of medicine; Foucauldian analyses of medicine and power relations; literary analyses of fictions about the body, health, and illness; and history of medicine. Vrettos writes accessibly both about familiar fictional texts of the period from both sides of the Atlantic and about a range of primary non-fictional sources like diaries, medical treatises, and health manuals, while privileging the literary as a mode and method of making sense of individual and social experience.


The second chapter of Somatic Fictions (in its earlier incarnation as an article for Victorian Studies) received the Schachterle Prize from the Society for Literature and Science.


Stanford Univ. Press

Place Published

Palo Alto, Calif.



Page Count