The female body as contagion, commodity, and cure: examining discursive agency through patriarchal quackery in Elizabeth Inchbald and Mary Robinson

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University of Alabama Libraries

This thesis seeks to prod at the disciplinary rift between science and literature in an attempt to examine how the female body has been reinscribed, further codified, and controlled within the gendered linguistic structures of eighteenth century experimental electrical medicine. Analyzing Elizabeth Inchbald’s Animal Magnetism in conversation with Mary Robinson’s Walsingham; or, The Pupil of Nature, I trace both authors’ characterization of the electromagnetic quack doctor as a figure of patriarchal control. I argue that Robinson and Inchbald articulate a critique of the ways in which the rigidly gendered, heavily corporeal, and ambiguous linguistic structures of electricity collapse into a very literal oppression of the female body within patriarchal social structures. Appropriating the language of electricity, and the medical discourses of madness, sympathy, sensibility, and power which undergird it, Inchbald and Robinson examine how these quack figures translate this vocabulary into patriarchal terms to prey upon women. The inherently performative nature of experimental electrical therapy, and its gendered, often eroticized, scientific language which centers upon the female body, allows for a further interrogation of the way that the literal and metaphoric configurations of electrical science converge over the female body.

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English literature