David Thorley, Writing Illness and Identity in Seventeenth-Century Britain

David Thorley, Writing Illness and Identity in Seventeenth-Century Britain (London: Palgrave 2016) x + 231 pp. £45.99 PDF, EPUB, £58.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-137-59311-5

The title of this book immediately recalled to mind a favourite course on Early Modern autobiography from the halcyon first years of graduate school. But a quick glace at its meticulously researched, well-writ pages revealed it to be far beyond the scope of achievement of a mere student. The author opens the acknowledgements section of his book with a note that the 'trek to publication' had been a long one (v). The sheer volume of the autobiographical sources consulted as well as the judiciously chosen quotations reveals the reasons why serious scholarship requires so much time.

I approached this book with certain tacit assumptions, one of which was that the setting of the book in the Seventeenth Century - for better or worse dubbed the period of the scientific revolution - would show that the period was reflected in the information that went into the autobiographies. And the opening of the book certainly seemed to reinforce this assumption for it begins with an account of Robert Boyle, and his vivid descriptions, in a series of letters to his sister, of an 'explosive onset of illness' the experience of which 'call’d to mind what my Curiosity for Dissections has shown me' (1). But I was disabused of my preconceptions by the third page, where Thorley states in no uncertain terms that the starting point of Writing Illness and Identity is his thesis that 'seventeenth-century life writing finds relatively little use for the period’s numerous, radical innovations in medical science to help make sense of personal illness' (emphasis added). His main study, he says, is of 'illness and patients, rather than medicine and doctors' which might make this book unusual reading for historians of science and medicine, but no less useful for all that.

Certainly Thorley is good at his word about his focus on the patients. In six chapters, which include an introduction and a conclusion he takes us through the autobiographical writings of many different men and women of the era. Through large tracts of excerpts of the primary documents, the reader is introduced, or re-introduced in some cases, to folks from different walks of life, albeit only literate ones. Not just the letter of Boyle but the writings of other famous scientific personages such as Robert Hooke – in this case his cryptic diaries – are examined. Samuel Pepys, the famous and also cryptic diarist (in his case deliberately so) is inevitably present, although oddly enough, only in the introduction and not in the extensive chapter on diaries. The Early Modern era might be the first historical period in which we have enough material about women by the women themselves, and Thorley has made good use of this fact, giving the reader examples in each of the genres covered.

Each of the four content chapters focuses on a subset of the broader genre of what the author calls 'life writing', which others refer to as ego-documents. Of these, diaries and letters (in Chapters Two and Four) are likely to be most familiar categories to most readers. The label of 'autobiography' for the material covered in Chapter Three was at first puzzling – after all wasn’t the entire book supposed to be about autobiography?  His explanation, while not entirely convincing in terms of labeling, seems reasonable enough as a category, especially for his purposes. The writings examined in this chapter differ from diaries in that they were not 'habitual' or regular records, but rather 'occasional', and Thorley’s argument that 'it is worth reflecting on the differences between sicknesses annotated in continuous diaries and those described after the fact' is persuasive (73). Decidedly the most surprising element in the book is the inclusion of poetry as a separate category of life-writing (Chapter Five). In order of their presentation, it includes first, poetry about ill health that people experiencing illness, copied into their notebooks, diaries and memoirs; and second, verses composed by the writer to describe their experiences. To Thorley these works suggest the life-writers whose works he examined 'frequently used verse in illness as a framework for reflecting on their relationship to God' and that the verses reflect 'more prescriptive than self-assertive responses to illness' (196). God or faith – specifically the Christian faith – is a constant presence in the book. Not only is this preoccupation on the part of Thorley’s subjects understandable, it also lends credence to his claim that these writers were less influenced by science.

Of all the chapters in this otherwise excellent survey of the Early Modern period, the conclusion seems the least satisfying, even a bit, jarring, mostly for its mode of presentation. A bulleted list of conclusions seems an odd route to take in a monograph, and while it does not negate Thorley’s impressive achievement in collecting and analysing such a vast trove of primary sources, it does not do it any favours either. It is only toward the end of the chapter – the last few paragraphs after the list – that the conclusion picks up pace. This shift occurs when Thorley brings in a comparative element to the discussion of the 'impulse to respond textually to illness.' For the most part, he is part of a cohort that believes that the early modern life writing is different from and did not necessarily anticipate the writings of the modern age. Illness in that period, he says – based on his admirable and wide reading of texts – was 'addressed by a strict adherence to forms, Biblical types and stock expressions' (216). The products are therefore markedly different from say examples from modernity where illness often stimulated original and descriptive writing. But in the very last lines of the book Thorley effects a sudden turnabout and asks the pertinent question, 'might these texts, taken from a wider perspective, also add weight to the case for a dominant instinct to draw illness into the author’s […] textual control?' (217). If Writing Illness and Identity is any indication, then a well-considered answer may be a couple of 'long treks' and many years in the offing.

Neeraja Sankaran, Independent Scholar, Bangalore