Symptomatic identities: lovesickness and the nineteenth-century British novel
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Lovesickness is a common malady in British literature, but it is also an illness that has been perceived and diagnosed differently in different eras. The nineteenthcentury British novel incorporates a lovesickness that primarily affects women with physical symptoms, including fever, that may end in a female character's death. The fever of female lovesickness includes a delirium that allows a female character to play out the identity crisis she must feel at the loss of a significant relationship and possibly of her social status. Commonly conflated with a type of female madness, the nineteenthcentury novelists often focus less on the delirium and more on the physical symptoms of illness that affect a female character at the loss of love. These physical symptoms require physical care from other characters and often grant the heroine status and comfort. Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Charles Dickens all use subtle variations in lovesickness to identify the presence or absence of a female character's virtue. Jane Austen established lovesickness as a necessary experience for female characters, who choose only if they reveal or conceal their symptoms to a watchful public. Elizabeth Gaskell established both a comic socially constructed lovesickness in which a female character can participate if she is aware of popular culture and a spontaneous lovesickness that affects socially unaware female characters and leads to death. Charles Dickens establishes lovesickness as culturally pervasive by writing a female character who stages lovesickness for the purpose of causing pain to others and a female character who is immune to lovesickness and the rhetoric of love, yet is consistently spoken into others' love stories. Lovesickness becomes a barometer of the soul in several nineteenthcentury novels by which we read a heroine's virtue or lack of virtue and the depth of her loss.
Cheshier, Laura Kay (2003). Symptomatic identities: lovesickness and the nineteenth-century British novel. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A&M University. Texas A&M University. Available electronically from