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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Leaky bodies reclaimed : biofluids, contagion, and Victorian England’s strange intimacies MacDonald, Anna E.


This dissertation revisits Victorian representations of fallen women to reimagine their bodies as unexpected sites of liberatory possibility, and to reinscribe their biofluids as a medium through which nineteenth-century authors negotiate deep-seated questions of material and symbolic relation. A major contribution of Victorian studies has been to recognize how narratives of fallenness served a regulatory function in the public management of England’s social body. These scholars investigate how this cultural figure exhibits the dangers of the body’s fluid, trans-corporeal flows. She thereby functions both as a cultural repository for Victorian contagion anxieties about epidemics, as well as a justification for the broader disciplinary mechanisms through which England managed the inputs and outputs of its citizens’ bodies. Spanning works of poetry and prose, each of my chapters reexamines one archetypal figure of Victorian fallenness: the drowned fallen woman, the poor seamstress, the fallen breastfeeder, and the lady poisoner. I investigate how nineteenth-century fictional and medical authors imaginatively interpolated these women’s bodily processes into epidemic diseases through a fluid that was metonymic to both: they join lubrication and cholera through water, menstruation and tuberculosis through blood, lactation and smallpox through milk, and vaginal discharge and syphilis through poison. Rather than attempt to disarticulate femininity from Victorian notions of fluidity and contagion, I explore one unexpectedly transgressive outcome of this correlation. I do so by examining a series of popular midcentury authors who use these leaky bodies to expand contagion narratives from sites of destructive to productive transformation. My thesis is that Victorian authors demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of fluidity that we tend to reserve for modern new materialist conceptualizations. My selected authors register a nineteenth-century attunement to the profound entanglements of material phenomena (humans, nonhuman animals, plants, minerals, chemicals) as well as a state of fluidity between material and symbolic phenomena (the latter encompassing feelings, affects, and words). These authors, moreover, deploy their attunement to fluidity towards expansive models of contact, communication, and community—forms of intimacy that emerge from (not despite) contagion’s destructive effects. Such models of fluidity anticipate new materialist conceptualizations of contagion in the post-Covid era.

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