I found this story in Jason Daniel Tougaw’s Strange Cases: The Medical Case History and the British Novel.
In the eighteenth century, there was considerable medical anxiety and confusion about what George Cheyne, author of medical texts, called ‘the English malady’, or nervous disorders. In 1807, medical author Thomas Trotter wrote A View of the Nervous Temperament in which he held novels responsible for causing nervousness, especially in women.
Trotter argues that the “love sick trash” of novels stimulates regions “beneath the level of rational being“. He thought that readers of novels would become too sympathetic with any ill characters in novels and therefore develop various pathological conditions of their own.
Tougaw reports, “Trotter sees women as particularly vulnerable because according to popular wisdom they are less familiar with the rational sciences and moral philosophy that might insulate them from the corrupting influence of fiction” (28).
Now, this is an exceptionally well-documented medical opinion that stretched out over centuries. You got this well before Trotter’s time, with Gothic novels, and well after, with sensation fiction, realist fiction, science fiction, just about any fiction you can imagine. If it was new, it was worrying–especially when people found out that women, horror of horrors, read these books (delicate, impressionable flowers, etc. etc.). If you guys want a really good chuckle, look up some old articles about sensation fiction. People were utterly convinced that if their wives and daughters read Wilkie Collins, or Mary Elizabeth Braddon, or Mrs. Henry Wood, it would transform them into desperately ill, sexually rapacious, chronically nervous criminals.
The real point of my post today, however, is the MOTHER OF ALL SMACKDOWNS that eighteenth-century author Fanny Burney laid on the people who thought this shit:
“In 1778, more than thirty years before Trotter published A View of the Nervous Temperament, Fanny Burney had anticipated such attacks, invoking a medical metaphor in the preface to Evelina, a metaphor that forestalled perceptions of her and her female readers as sub-rational creatures. Burney does not de-gender the debate, but her defense does rescue women from the commonly held view that they are inherently uncritical readers:
“‘Perhaps were it possible to effect the total extirpation of novels, our young ladies in general, and boarding-school damsels in particular, might profit from their annihilation: but since the distemper they have spread seems incurable, since their contagion bids defiance to the medicine of advice or reprehension, and since they are found to baffle all the mental art of physic, save what is prescribed by the slow regimen of Time, and bitter diet of Experience, surely all attempts to contribute to the number of those which maybe read, if not with advantage, at least without injury, ought rather to be encouraged than contemned‘” (28).
What she’s arguing is: look, you assholes have pathologized novels read by women, and seem to think novels are an unstoppable contagion. You think that we’ll slowly get sicker and sicker until we’ve finally read enough and have enough life experience to overcome the horrible nervous impulses we learned in these books. So SURELY you should be encouraging your wives and daughters to read a TON of these books right away, to get it out of our system quicker. Let’s party it up with ‘girly’ books, you sexist fuck-knuckles.”
That last bit might be more me than Burney, but you get the drift.