Rediagnosing Dickens : disease and medical issues in the work of Charles Dickens
This thesis explores the possibility of re-reading texts and key scenes in Dickens by placing his fictional work in the context of nineteenth century historical and medical debates. These readings often reveal hidden discourses or subtexts which are embedded in Dickens's fiction, sometimes operating independently of the wider plots and narratives. Five key medical issues or debates are selected to provide a framework for rediagnising or proving alternative re-readings of Dickens's work. They are issues surrounding the aetiologies of disease, attitudes and responses to disability, the professionalisation of medicine and nursing, the link between crime, illness and criminal culpability and the debates surrounding ideal states of health. Aetiologies of disease are considered alongside contemporary critical responses to disease and social reform in Dickens's fiction and their impact on key figures, scenes and plot development. By examining attitudes and responses to disability the thesis explores how whilst Dickens clearly participates in traditional stereotypical depictions of disability he is also challenging conventional attitudes. In relation to the nineteenth century professionalisation of medicine and nursing, Dickens participates in rewriting the changing role of physicians and nurses. Ideas of nursing and professional care are contrasted with care motivated by family ties and the compassion of individuals. Crime, illness and criminal culpability are explored with a focus on epilepsy, and how illness is used as a metaphor and as part of characterisation. Villainous characters are reread in the light of this condition. Finally, the thesis concludes with an examination of health, identifying what Dickens advocated as a healthy state and how this could be maintained. Ultimately, the thesis reveals the increasing complexity with which Dickens engages with these debates. This historical and cultural approach provides a method to explore both Dickens's life and his fiction.