Saturday, July 25, 2015

Olivia Weisser's "Ill Composed"

Olivia Weisser is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Ill Composed: Sickness, Gender, and Belief in Early Modern England, and reported the following:
At first glance, I thought my book failed the “Page 99 test.” On page 99, I attempt to explain a particular pattern in women’s personal writing from the 1600s. After rereading the page, however, I realized that the focused discussion actually illustrates the overarching argument of the book. The page discusses what I call “mimetic suffering.” This is a tendency of women from the period to mirror the illnesses of loved ones. These women claimed to experience the very same symptoms as their dying husbands and children, as though the aches and pains of loved ones were transposed to their own bodies. I have been unable to find comparable examples by men.

On p. 99, I discuss a possible explanation for this phenomenon. Claiming to fall sick in sympathy with an ailing friend or family member was a popular trope in correspondence from the period. For instance, Lydia Dugard wrote the following note to her lover in 1668: “How much am I afflicted at the bad news of your headache it is cruel to me now and tortures me as much as if I really felt it.” Dugard did not actually develop a headache, of course, but she communicated her concern by describing her emotional distress as a comparable pain. As I explain on p. 99, “Such expressions of compassion perhaps informed more literal articulations of the sympathetic relationship between grief and illness in women’s writing. When overwhelming sorrow caused women to mirror the aches and pains of loved ones, they embodied a common discourse for conveying sympathy.”

This discussion offers a clear example of the larger argument of the book, which is that men and women in the period perceived illness in gendered ways. The discussion also nicely illustrates how I attempt to explain and historicize those gender differences: by looking to the intimate details of seventeenth-century life.
Follow Olivia Weisser on Twitter and learn more about Ill Composed at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue