Eighteenth-century medical discourse and sensible bodies : sensibility and selfhood in the works of William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley
In Eighteenth-Century Medical Discourse and Sensible Bodies: Sensibility and Selfhood in the Works of William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, I examine how medical, philosophical and theological discourses on sensibility and on selfhood mutually informed one another in the historical moment of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in England. The key to unravelling the complex notion of sensibility principally lies in the medical discourse that investigated the source of motion, knowledge, and moral feelings. I focus on the medical tracts which can be seen as discursive responses to Locke’s epistemology. In addition, I read eighteenth-century philosophical texts and analysed some of the political debates on the French Revolution. The theory of associationism which is predicted on the study of nerves and sense-impressions throws some light on a particular aspect of sensibility which explores epistemological issues and character formation. I show how the nerve theory operated in gender specific ways, so exposing the gender bias of supposedly objective medical science. The specific writers I discuss, Godwin, Wollstonecraft and Shelley, all address the associations theory directly. A close examination of their appropriation of medical language reveals that the image of the sensible body was a constant source of inspiration, and that their literary production was a continual process of re-figuring such a medicalised body. My project attempts to make sense of the equivocal position of Godwin and Wollstonecraft, who, while upholding rationalism, avow sensibility in their literary and non-literary works. The underlying contradictions between the associationism and the authority of the individual’s mind run deep. Rather than illustrating feminine reticence in Shelley’s Frankenstein as a cultural reflection of a “proper lady,” I argue that her characterisation of the monster and of female characters must be read as complex articulations of her sentiments about the discourses on sensibility and the problem of human agency.