Heather Meek: Reimagining Illness Women Writers and Medicine in Eighteenth-Century Britain

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Heather Meek, Reimagining Illness  Women Writers and Medicine in Eighteenth-Century Britain, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2023.

In eighteenth-century Britain the worlds of literature and medicine were closely intertwined, and a diverse group of people participated in the circulation of medical knowledge. In this pre-professionalized milieu, several women writers made important contributions by describing a range of common yet often devastating illnesses.

In Reimagining Illness Heather Meek reads works by six major eighteenth-century women writers - Jane Barker, Anne Finch, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Frances Burney - alongside contemporaneous medical texts to explore conditions such as hysteria, melancholy, smallpox, maternity, consumption, and breast cancer. In novels, poems, letters, and journals, these writers drew on their learning and literary skill as they engaged with and revised male-dominated medical discourse. Their works provide insight into the experience of suffering and interrogate accepted theories of women’s bodies and minds. In ways relevant both then and now, these women demonstrate how illness might be at once a bodily condition and a malleable construct full of ideological meaning and imaginative possibility.

Reimagining Illness offers a new account of the vital period in medico-literary history between 1660 and 1815, revealing how the works of women writers not only represented the medicine of their time but also contributed meaningfully to its developments.

Heather Meek is associate professor of English studies at the Université de Montréal.


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