Five Questions: On the Fashionable Diseases Project

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In addition to talking to scholars who’ve recently completed monographs and editions, I thought that it’d be interesting to talk with teams of scholars who are currently working on large research projects, so I contacted the Fashionable Diseases team to find out what they’re currently up to.  Since the project team introduce themselves in the course of the interview, I’ll keep this introduction short and just thank Anita O’Connell for co-ordinating this and point out that the Call for Papers for the project’s international conference is still open; please see the last answer for further details.  If you’re interested in following the project, the websiteTwitter and Facebook have you covered.

1) What was the initial inspiration for the Fashionable Diseases project?

The seedling idea for this project first germinated when Clark Lawlor was researching for his volume, Sciences of Body and Mind, in the eight-volume anthology Literature and Science, 1660-1834 (Pickering & Chatto, 2003).  He included an essay from 1786 by James Makittrick Adair (1728–1801), a Bath society doctor, called ‘On fashionable disease’.  Clark was, and remains, fascinated by the issues raised by Adair, not least the problem of how a disease can possibly be fashionable: surely this is a paradox?  How are fashionable diseases defined, created, maintained and destroyed?  His subsequent work on representations of consumption/tuberculosis and melancholy – two fashionable diseases par excellence – kept the idea of fashionable disease to the fore in his critical thinking.

2) How did you go about putting together a team and securing support?          

Clark was lucky to be working with colleagues interested in similar issues: in his own institution (Northumbria University) we had completed a three-year Leverhulme Trust major project entitled Before Depression, 1660-1800: The Representation and Culture of the English Malady (see directed by Professor Allan Ingram.  Dr Leigh Wetherall Dickson had been the post-doctoral research fellow on that project, and now both she and Professor Ingram form the Northumbria directorial team, along with Clark.  Clark was also lucky that, across the road (literally) at Newcastle University, an experienced and distinguished historian of eighteenth-century medicine – Dr Jonathan Andrews – was interested in similar ideas.  After a series of fruitful chats, they arrived at the idea of bidding to the Leverhulme Trust for a project which would take up some of the ideas from Before Depression and other previous work by the members of the team.  There followed a long period of discussion and hard work between Jonathan and Clark as they co-wrote the body of the bid:  the most challenging part of which was broadening the definition of fashionable diseases beyond the initial concept of a fashionable disease as desirable to the individual affected or afflicted by a fashionable condition.  We wanted to add two post-doctoral research fellows, one at each institution, to take forward the agendas we felt the need to address, so these posts were built into the bid.  Fortunately for us, the Leverhulme Trust liked our theme, and have kindly given us the resources to pursue it properly.

3) What individual research projects are the team pursuing beneath the overall umbrella?

Professor Clark Lawlor, Professor of English Literature at Northumbria University, is writing a monograph which surveys the progress of fashionable disease as it is represented in creative literature across the long eighteenth century.  He has been working recently on Laurence Sterne’s self-fashioning of his consumption, linked as it is to nervous sensibility, for the promotion of his literary celebrity.  He is also writing on the notion of ‘authentic’ fashionable disease in Anne Finch’s poem on ‘the Spleen’ and Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

Dr Anita O’Connell, Leverhulme Research Fellow in English Literature at Northumbria University, is writing a monograph addressing literary representations of fashionable diseases.  She is looking specifically at the relationship between illness and insight in the works of Romantic poets including Mary Robinson and Felicia Hemans.  She is also interested in literary depictions of fashionable diseases in eighteenth-century British spa towns.

Dr Jonathan Andrews, Reader in the History of Psychiatry at Newcastle University, in close collaboration with James Kennaway (as project Research Associate), is concentrating on the patient experience of a range of fashionable diseases, in particular bilious and stomach complaints, headache, rheumatic and nervous disorders.  He is especially interested in how elite and middling class patients narrativised their illnesses, how such diseases impacted on identity and sociability, and in what ways modish tropes and models of disease trickled down the social scale.

Dr James Kennaway, Leverhulme Research Fellow in the History of Medicine at Newcastle University, is working on patient experiences of so-called fashionable diseases.  By looking at large amounts of patient testimony in contemporary diaries and letters, he aims to get a better sense of lay understandings of these conditions and the way they interacted with medical opinion.

Professor Allan Ingram, Professor of English Literature at Northumbria University, is working on illness and its representation in the work of Swift and Pope, including their relations with members of the medical profession and their own states of health.  More broadly, from across the period he is interested in attitudes towards and representations of diseases that were never likely to become fashionable.

Dr Leigh Wetherall Dickson, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Northumbria University, is interested in bringing together two previously separate strands of research for this project.  Having written on the fashionable politics and spectacular of the Whig party and on the experience of illness, she is now interested in the spectacle of illness in relation to the celebrity body.

4) What themes, issues and commonalities have emerged from the work and workshops you’ve conducted so far?

Since the Fashionable Diseases project began less than a year ago, we have hosted workshops on ‘Hypochondria and the Refashioning of Medical Uncertainty’; ‘The Practical and Not-so-Practical Art of Fashionable Melancholia: From Black Bile to Hamlet’; ‘“Making Up People” Reconsidered’, which focused on autism; ‘Fashionable Suicides of the Romantic Era’; ‘Disability and Fashionable Diseases in Literature and Culture’; and ‘Fashion and Illness in Georgian Bath.’  We have been discussing the ways in which literature and culture, both in the eighteenth century as well as now, sometimes popularize or add a touch of glamour to what were often debilitating diseases.  We have examined representations of eighteenth-century maladies such as hypochondria, melancholy and gout, along with the glamorization of suicide and the fashionability of visiting spas like Bath and Bristol for one’s health.  We have also started to think about trends in medicine today, about changes in the ways we represent and think about disability, and about the effects of medical labelling of people such as those with autism.

Recordings of all of the workshops are available as free podcasts on our website:

5) What’s coming up for the project, and how can people follow its progress and get involved?

We are organizing a major international conference jointly hosted by Newcastle and Northumbria Universities, which will be held 3-5th July 2014.  Our confirmed plenary speakers are Professor Helen Deutsch (UCLA), author of Resemblance and Disgrace: Alexander Pope and the Deformation of Culture, who will be speaking on ‘Diseases of Writing,’ and Professor David Shuttleton (Glasgow), author of Smallpox and the Literary Imagination, who will be speaking on ‘The Fashioning of Fashionable Diseases in the Eighteenth Century.’  The conference aims to examine the role of culture and literature in creating, framing and spreading conceptions of fashionable diseases.  Our themes include but are not limited to culture and fashionable diseases, patient experiences, the medical marketplace, spa culture, imaginary diseases and unfashionable diseases.

We are currently inviting abstracts for papers, which can be emailed to by 28th February 2014.  More information on the conference is available on our website: