Lecture recap: “James Hogg and Illness Narratives in a Scottish Context”

With Megan Coyer, Arden Hegele, and Cristobal Silva

The fall semester’s Explorations in Medical Humanities series capped with a lecture from Dr. Megan Coyer (Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Glasgow) on the subject of illness narratives and James Hogg’s 1823 novel, The Three Perils of Woman; or, Love, Erasing, and Jealousy, with relation to Edinburgh’s active periodical culture at the time of Hogg’s writing. Given Scotland’s position as the premier hotspot of medical knowledge and practice in the eighteenth and and early nineteenth centuries, Scottish periodical culture proved instrumental in disseminating medical ideas not only throughout the British Isles and Britain’s colonies, but beyond into the newly independent America as well as the Continent. Popular publications such as the Edinburgh Review and Blackwood’s Magazine circulated not only medical content, but stories and poems, and served as a crucial link for different parts of the globe.

As an autodidact and a keen participant in the periodical culture through his writing, Hogg attuned himself to the intellectual currents of modernity more than any other contemporary Scots author, and Coyer argues that Hogg’s The Three Perils of Woman contains multiple illness narratives permeated with tensions of representation and interpretation—tensions which were common in the medical literature of his time. Hogg’s text features the story of a young woman named Gatty Bell, who falls into a three-year automaton-like state after a swoon and an opiate-induced sedation, alive but unwitting and unmoving. Specific descriptions of her during this state resonate with descriptions of animated corpses in Galvanic experiments on the bodies of executed criminals, and Coyer observes a tension at work between a supernatural or divine explanation for Gatty’s condition and medical narratives of illness. Gatty’s story teases out issues such as the problems of narrating illness, changes in selfhood as a consequence of illness, making meaning out of illness, and troublingly triumphalist perspectives of medicine’s restorative powers.

Coyer finds potential medical inspirations for The Three Perils in the periodicals Hogg would have read, spanning from accounts of medical experiments to a specific case of a woman falling into a long slumber of three weeks, for inexplicable reasons. Besides such medical sources, Coyer views Hogg as responding also to tales of terror that were in vogue in Blackwood’s Magazine, such as John Galt’s 1821 story, “The Buried Alive,” which dealt with the horrors of bodily entrapment. More pointedly, Hogg reacts directly to a fellow writer’s novel: John Wilson’s popular, if sentimental, Lights and Shadows of Scottish Life, a Selection from the Papers of the Late Arthur Austin. Both Hogg’s and Wilson’s narratives center on a woman who suffers a transformative illness, but unlike Wilson, Hogg deliberately resists idealization of either the Scottish peasantry or medical triumphalism.

Cristobal Silva (Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University) responded, with questions of ethical reading practices in the medical and health humanities. How do we read historical illness narratives? How do we speak for subjects in the archives, particularly when the subjects have been silenced? Questions from the audience likewise dwelled on the politics of narrative, and the ethical responsibilities of reading. As Coyer’s lecture brought together reflections on ethics, narrative form, and scholarship, we are reminded that ethical obligations exist dually on both the side of the patient and the physician, and the reader and the writer.

Ami Yoon is a graduate student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

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