After Kathryn Huie Harrison, Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology, wrote asking for suggestions for “a reading list for a course on the Victorian female body,” members of the Victoria discussion list responded will a wide array of valuable suggestions of primary and secondary materials.

History of Medicine

Ruth Richardson, Fellow of the British Royal Historical Society: In medicine, Lesley Hall's work A Guide to Contemporary Medical Archives in the Wellcome Library, ed. Amanda Engineer, Lesie Hall, and Julia Sheppard. (London: Wellcome Library, 2001) (including her edition of Marie Stopes) ...... There is a lot of material online (see the Wellcome Library Catalogue) concerning the Contagious Diseases Acts, where venereal diseases were regarded in UK Legislation as somehow a peculiarly female problem, as if women didn't catch them from men! The debate embodies the whole matter of the Victorian double sexual standard for men & women. The great figure on the issue at the time was Josephine Butler - who was regarded askance for speaking out, but did it nevertheless. The vicious misogyny of Dr William Acton has to be read to be believed.

Other work in the history of medicine puts the experience of living inside a female body in its nineteenth-century context - there's a fine book by Richard W. Wertz and Dorothy C. Wertz, Lying-In: The History of Childbirth in America (Yale UP, 1989) and Irvine Loudon, Death in childbirth: an international study of maternal care and maternal mortality, 1800-1950 (Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

My Making of Mr. Gray's Anatomy: Bodies, books, fortune, fame (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) mentions how in medicine the male was regarded as the norm, and female bodies only pictured for where they were regarded as aberrant from the norm, and in sadistic nasty ways in older anatomy books, but schematically in Gray's, but it's not a central focus. I would send them back to original textbooks to look for themselves. Gray's was published on both sides of the Atlantic, and so were others.

The disabled body

GPL: Jennifer Esmail’s Reading Victorian Deafness: Signs and Sounds in Victorian Literature and Culture (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2013) and Martha Stoddard Holmes’s Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009) both reviewed by Diane Greco Josefowicz.

Ellen Moody, PhD, City University of New York: Fictions about physically disabled women focus hard on female bodies, especially with respect to whether she can marry and if she wants to have children. Dickens's Jenny Wren may fit in here, but more central to the query might be Dinak Craik's Olive which includes a daring if euphemistic depiction of childbirth. The heroine is a hunchback. Another is the Italian 19th century epistolary novel (upon which a film was based which Sondheim used for his musical-opera, Passion), Tarchetti's Tosca (she has a distorted form too), which has been translated into English by Lawrence Venuti, using the 20th century (apparently preferred title, Passion).

Alexandra Valint, Assistant Professor of English, University of Southern Mississippi: Miriam Bailin’s The Sickroom in Victorian Fiction: the Art of being Ill (Cambridge UP, 1994), Athena Vrettos’s Somatic Fictions: Imagining Illness in Victorian Culture (Stanford UP, 1995), and The Madwoman and the Blindman: Jane Eyre, Discourse, and Disability, Ed. David Bolt, Julia Miele Rodas, and Elizabeth J. Donaldson (Ohio State UP, 2012).

Psychology and psychiatry

Pritika Pradhan, PhD Candidate in English, Rutgers University: If you are interested in Victorian medical, and in particular psychiatric, debates concerning women's bodies, you may want to look at Sally Shuttleworth's Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology (1996; covers a range of medical discourses that might be useful even if you are not covering Bronte). Shuttleworth has also co-edited a couple of useful anthologies - Embodied Selves: An Anthology of Psychological Texts 1830-1890 (co-edited with Jenny Bourne Taylor, 1998) and a critical collection, Body/Politics: Women and the Discourses of Science (co-edited with Mary Jacobus and Evelyn Fox Keller, 1990),


Dr. Janice Allan, Associate Dean Academic (Assurance), School of Arts and Media, University of Salford: Ellen Wood's Lord Oakburn's Daughters (1864) has an unusually frank representation of pregnancy. You might also want to have a look at the exhibition of a female corpse in Wood's St. Martin's Eve -- an extraordinary scene if you're not familiar with it and one that foregrounds the materiality of the female body (1866).

Christine Schintgen, D.Phil., Chairman of Literature, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy, Barry's Bay, Canada: Anna Krugovoy Silver's Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body (New York: Cambridge UP, 2002) should be on the list of critical works. She talks about the "anorexic logic" whereby slim female bodies are privileged as signs of women's control over their passions. She discusses some worthwhile texts, such as Dickens's David Copperfield and Charlotte Brontë's Villette.

Elizabeth Foxwell, Managing Editor, Clues: A Journal of Detection: You could also get into the emergence of the New Woman, with its corresponding discussion of exercise and physical fitness. Grant Allen's Miss Cayley's Adventures (1899, repr. 2008 Valancourt Books with an intro by yours truly) has Lois Cayley competing in a bicycle race. See also Allen’s The Type-Writer Girl (1897) available in a Broadview edition.


Lee O'Brien, Department of English, Macquarie University, Sydney: I know poetry was not explicitly required on this thread. There have been so many good suggestions for the novels and secondary sources that there will probably be enough for several courses. Still, I couldn't help thinking of the fascinating ways in which women poets use the body in their lyrics and narrative poems. The poems that came to my mind are much less obviously enmeshed in contemporary Victorian debates about what women could and could not do given the inferior bodies God or nature assigned to them, but they are provocative and challenging nevertheless. Rosamund Marriott Watson has several superb ballads all turning on female corporeality: “A Ballad of the Were-Wolf”, “The Moor Girl’s Well”, “Ballad of the Willow Pool”, “Walpurgis”. Watson’s use of the male voice in some of these poems is particularly interesting. All of Mary Coleridge's haunting witch poems, and also -- especially -- "The Other Side of a Mirror". Augusta Webster's "Circe", especially lines 98-130, "A Castaway", especially lines 23-45; Menken's "Judith". Emily Brontë’s "Stars" is persistently situated in the body of the speaker even though it is about elemental things, stars, night, the sun. It’s just extraordinary the way she uses the body to internalize the elemental conflict she imagines (what is that? lyricizing myth?).

Book 1 of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh – the breaking of Aurora’s curls into smooth braids by her aunt, the Brinvilliers comparison (the years of education – as her aunt defines it --drenching Aurora’s throat, splitting the veins), the account of the power of poetry and the Age it “catches” (Book 5) as breast/breast milk/lava, "Hiram Powers' Greek Slave". Amy Levy’s "Xantippe" is not specifically about the female body, but the judgments made by Socrates, Plato, and Alcibiades about Xantippe’s intellect are clearly grounded in her femaleness, hence they are something she is powerless to withstand. Her bodily presence (she is an intruder/outsider in her own home) is pitted against a male authority that is a deadly combination of anatomy and ideology. Mary Robinson's “The Scape-Goat”. And then there's Goblin Market.

I recently taught a seminar on Elizabeth Siddal’s “At Last”, Levy’s “Felo de Se” and RMW’s “A Ballad of the Were-Wolf” (there were male poets too). Students love the poems – they particularly love Levy (we do “Xantippe” in another week). Admittedly they are a small, very engaged, hard-working group of honours students, but I’ve also had success with many of these poems in larger undergraduate groups (third year level and, with EBB, first year). I think these poems are deeply political and gender-aware, rich in an understanding of the discursive resources of the female body, but they may be too oblique/allusive for your purposes – such is the danger of poetry!

The male Victorian poets and the female body -- where to begin?

If one accepts the view that the power of poetry resides in the idea of voice – of speaking -- then the genre perhaps has a more inherent connection to the body than prose.

AV: I don't think anyone has mentioned H. Rider Haggard's She, which features some amazing descriptions of Ayesha's body. I second the suggestions of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, but I wanted to add Beth Torgerson's Reading the Brontë Body: Disease, Desire, and the Constraints of Culture (Palgrave, 2005) as an excellent secondary source.


Jacqueline Banerjee, Associate Editor, the Victorian Web: For discussions of gender, the female body, and disability, I would add that puberty is important, as tomboyish "awkward" girls like Charlotte Yonge's Ethel May in The Daisy Chain have to conform to behavioural norms. There is a wonderful passage showing Ethel being fitted out in fashionable attire, for instance: "before Ethel knew what was going on, her muslin was stripped off her back, and that instrument of torture, a half-made body, was being tried upon her. She made one of her most wonderful grimaces of despair, and stood still!" She is seen as representative of a class of girls who think themselves plain and ungainly, and find it hard to assume the feminine role. Of course, there are other tomboys too, who have to learn to adapt; it's not just a feature of novels for girls. In connection with this example, think of Jane Eyre not wanting to be decked out by Mr Rochester. Claudia Nelson focuses on "Boys will be girls" but girls were hardly allowed to be boys (though some more or less were — in real life Harriet Hosmer springs to mind). Very interesting topic, obviously!


For a historically informed but modern fictional take - The Dress Lodger, by Sheri Holman.

Comparison with the male body

Ruth Richardson: Personally, I feel that unless you include comparison, what students take away will be limited, so you will have to address the male body at some point too. In art History Margaret Walters The Nude Male and Alison Smith's Exposed (Tate Gallery). John Tosh, A man's place: masculinity and the middle-class home in Victorian England (Yale UP, 1999). and John Tosh, Manliness and masculinities in nineteenth-century Britain: essays on gender, family, and empire (Pearson Longman, 2005). The male body in clothing and fashion: John Harvey's Men in Black (University of Chicago Press, 1995).

GPL: You might wish to look at material on this site about the male and female nude in sculpture, especially the gallery of images entitled “Women in Chains” and Margaret Giles attempt to create a sublime female nude in her Hero.

Works of criticism, anthropology, sociology, and social history

RR: Somewhere I would ensure that everyone reads both Mary Douglas's Purity & Danger, and John Berger's Ways of Seeing and Leonore Davidoff’s “Speaking Volumes: Purity and Danger” ( Sally Alexander's beautiful book Women's Work focuses on the UK, but the insights travel. —Ruth Richardson

Last modified 23 May 2016