Diseases of Modern Life: Nineteenth-Century Perspectives
Funded by an Advanced Investigator grant from the European Research Council, this project examines the medical, literary and cultural responses in the Victorian age to the perceived problems of stress and overwork, anticipating many of the preoccupations of our own era. In our current ‘Information Age’ we suffer as never before, it is claimed, from the stresses of an overload of information, and the speed of global networks. The Victorians diagnosed similar problems in the nineteenth century. The medic James Crichton Browne spoke in 1860 of the ‘velocity of thought and action’ now required, and of the stresses imposed on the brain forced to process in a month more information ‘than was required of our grandfathers in the course of a lifetime’. Our research explores the phenomena of stress and overload, and other disorders associated in the nineteenth century with the problems of modernity, as expressed in the literature, science and medicine of the period, tracking the circulation of ideas across these diverse areas. We examine ‘diseases from worry and mental strain’, as experienced in the professions, ‘lifestyle’ diseases such as the abuse of alcohol and narcotics, and also diseases from environmental pollution. The study will return to the holistic, integrative vision of the Victorians, as expressed in the science and in the great novels of the period, exploring the connections drawn between physiological, psychological and social health, or disease. Particular areas of focus are: diseases of finance and speculation; diseases associated with particular professions; alcohol and drug addiction amidst the middle classes; travel for health; education and over-pressure in the classroom; the development of phobias and nervous disorders; and the imaginative construction of utopias and dystopias, in relation to health and disease. The project aims to break through the compartmentalization of psychiatric, environmental or literary history, and to offer new ways of contextualising the problems of modernity facing us in the twenty-first century.
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