Spasmodic affections: poetry, pathology and the spasmodic hero

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14 Citations (Scopus)


Although she stresses her genuine suffering from a combination of mental and physical factors, Wollstonecraft makes it clear that spasms are slightly comic symptoms, presumably in their bathetic relation to tragic heartbreak. Her deliberate emphasis on the emotional and affective cause of her illness suggests she is exploiting the perceived link between female emotion and bodily suffering: in retrospect, the reader might also smile at the idea that Wollstonecraft, later notable for brilliantly scornful dissections of the cultural relation between women and sickness, might have fallen prey to such a peculiarly feminine illness herself. Wollstonecraft was writing over sixty years before "spasm" and "spasmodic" became terms used to denote a particular literary movement, yet this letter is significant because it highlights accepted ideas about the relation between nervousness, heartbreak, and spasmodic attacks and because it additionally considers the association between spasms and gender. These ideas, as we shall see, went on to become a subject of considerable debate in the first half of the nineteenth century, and eventually came to haunt spasmodic poetry and its practitioners.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)473-490
Number of pages18
JournalVictorian Poetry
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 22 Dec 2004


  • Scottish
  • poetry
  • medical history
  • Victorian


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