Decorative Initial No topic more occupied the Victorian mind than Health--not religion, or politics, or Improvement, or Darwinism. In the name of Health, Victorians flocked to the seaside, tramped about in the Alps or Cotswolds, dieted, took pills, sweated themselves in Turkish baths, adopted this "system" of medicine or that. Partly for the sake of Health, they invented, revived, or imported from abroad a multitude of athletic recreations, and England became, in Sir Charles Tennyson's words, the "world's game master." Literary critics thought of Health when they read a new book of poems; social theorists thought of Health when they read a new book of poems; social theorists thought of Health when they envisioned an ideal society. Victorians worshiped the goddess Hygeia, sought out her laws, and disciplined themselves to obey them.

Victorian intellectuals insisted on the reality of a spiritual life higher than that of the body, but in one way or another they all thought physiologically: they adopted the well-knit body as their model for spiritual health, the harmony of the self with external principles of growth and order. Total health or wholeness--mens sana in corpore sano--was a dominant concept for the Victorians, as important in shaping thought about human growth and conduct as nature was to the Romantics.

Several factors coincided to give the healthy body a special conceptual prominence in nineteenth-century thought. First, the development of physiology as a separate and distinct biological science offered hope that the laws of life could be learned in their relation to human beings. The emphasis on this science was on the wholeness of the body, on what Charles Singer has called a"synthetic study," with the organs being look at not so much "in and for themselves as in relation to the other organs." Important work was thus being done in physiological systems, particularly the digestive, respiratory, and neural, leading more and more to a concept of the whole physiological man. Second, the emergence of a physiological psychology, together with a a psychological approach to medicine, fostered the conviction that the health of the body and the health of the mind were interdependent. And third, a growing belief that education should develop the whole man inspired an interest in physical training as an essential part of personal culture.

All of these provided a philosophical framework for exploring the mind-body connection.

-- Bruce Haley. The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Given the Victorians' attitude towards "Health" and the connection they perceived to exist between the mind and the body, what sort of images appear in the literature of the time? Are emotions--mental distress, love, grief--mirrored in bodily functions, the physical and the psychological equated? What sort of implications does Haley's work have, for example, when analyzing the poetry of Algernon Charles Swinburne, whose poems often involve a touch of the macabre if not the morbid, with bruised bodies and the like? Does the Victorians' emphasis on health help explain why the poetry of the Decadents might have been criticized by them?


Victorian Web Public Health

Last modified April 1991