Daniel McCann and Claire McKechnie-Mason (eds), Fear in the Medical and Literary Imagination, Medieval to Modern: Dreadful Passions

Daniel McCann and Claire McKechnie-Mason (eds), Fear in the Medical and Literary Imagination, Medieval to Modern: Dreadful Passions (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 261pp. £79.99 Hb, ISBN: 978-1-137-55947-0

This collection of essays owes much to the ‘affective turn’ in the humanities, taking as its focus the myriad ways in which fear has been represented and constructed in the cultural imagination in the Western world (chiefly England) from the medieval period to today. Across this diverse collection, the contributors turn their attention to how fear encompasses and intersects with a broad spectrum of emotions and feelings, including sadness, anxiety, dread and terror. The essays uncover how fear held positive connotations as well as negative ones, variously seen to be morally instructive or as offering pleasurable excitement.

The book’s scope, the ‘medical and literary imagination’, should be read in its broadest sense, for the essays explore a wide range of discourses and disciplines – including philosophy and psychology, theology and modern mass media – though the critical approach is predominantly a literary and historicist one. The collection traverses more familiar or expected subjects – from Gothic fiction and Freud’s conception of the uncanny – while unearthing more unfamiliar material including lesser-known Old English poetry and Victorian fiction.

Fear in the Medical and Literary Imagination is divided into two sections. The first – ‘Treating Fear: Medicine, Illness, Therapy’ – is intended to be ‘medical in focus’, exploring ‘the fear of illness, fear as a part of illness, and fear as a therapeutic tool’ (9). Meanwhile, the second half – ‘Writing Fear: Rhetoric, Passion, Literature’ – shifts to a closer consideration of ‘the literary, rhetorical, and cultural understandings of fear’ (11).  

Daniel McCann’s opening essay lays the groundwork for the collection. It explores the close connections between medicine and theology in the medieval period, showing how ‘drede’ was presented as both damaging and therapeutic. McCann argues that, in texts such as the fourteenth-century prose meditation The Prickynge of Love, fear functioned as a tool to bring about a state of ‘sowle-hele’ (health of the soul). Next, Mary Ann Lund uncovers how Richard Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) represented fear as harmful to melancholics but also explored its ‘imaginative possibilities’ (39). In this ‘mixed mode’, melancholics’ fears were rendered ‘potentially deadly’ but also ‘bizarrely comic’ (53). Allan Ingram and Clark Lawlor then interrogate shifting conceptions of fear across the long eighteenth century. In this ‘transitional period’, fear was represented as a potential gateway to spiritual experiences, and was – in the culture of sensibility and the Gothic mode – ‘valourised or even glamourised as an emotion to be sought out and experienced to the full’ (55, 76).

Moving on to the Victorian period, Pamela K. Gilbert studies the psychology and physiology of fear – focusing on ‘aesthetics and the affect of reading’ – which she examines alongside debates concerning the impact of Gothic and sensation fiction (80). Gilbert also looks forward to recent cognitive neuroscience, to illuminate enduring debates about the affective pleasures to be derived from fiction.

Despite its stated intention, the book’s first half is perhaps inclined more towards the literary than the medical or health humanities, with the exception of Joanna Bourke’s excellent closing essay on the fear of pain in childbirth in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Bourke considers both the appetite for and resistance to anaesthesia for labour pains, using the subject as a lens through which to explore gender, class, the welfare state, inter-professional tensions, and the doctor-patient relationship.

The second half of the book begins with Andy Orchard’s in-depth analysis of the language of fear in the Old English poem Exodus, which he argues shows the poet’s ‘terrifying originality’ as well as their practice of ‘adapting, updating, and alluding to’ works that remain better known today, including Beowulf (154). Elizabeth Hunter then explores representations of ‘despair’ in Elizabethan and Stuart literature, probing whether its associations with judgement were instructive or a cause of considerable anxiety.

In the next essay, Sally Shuttleworth looks at the Victorians’ preoccupation with unusual phobias or ‘inexplicable states of fear’ (178). She illuminates the interplay between literature and the medical case study through an examination of how late nineteenth-century psychiatry engaged with the representation of obsessions in George Borrow’s little-known novel Lavengro (1851).

Shifting attention to the twentieth century, Neil Pemberton studies the anti-noise crusade of the interwar period, showing how debates about the noise produced by an age of industrialised labour and mass consumer culture were inflected with concerns about national identity, class prejudices, and political anxieties. Lastly, Martin Willis’ closing essay looks at the interplay between the medical case report and medical TV dramas such as House, M.D. and Critical in the twenty-first century. He considers how the body becomes constructed as an object of fear across these ‘dual sites’ of representation (232). Finally, Priscilla Wald’s epilogue offers a reflection on the ‘uncanny’ and broadens into a meditation on ontological fear, before responding to the essays’ discussions of the forms and functions of fear across historical periods. 

As with any edited collection featuring such a diverse range of material, the risk is that the essays seem disparate and even disconnected. There is a danger of that here, and while the introduction and epilogue tease out some overlaps, I think it would have been valuable for the connections to be more explicitly interwoven throughout. The break between sections one and two seems particularly abrupt, shifting from history of medicine with Bourke’s exploration of labour pains in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries to Orchard’s close analysis of language in Old English poetry. In adjacent essays, Ingram and Lawlor and then Gilbert valuably explore Gothic author Ann Radcliffe’s value-laden distinction between ‘terror’ and ‘horror’, but they use different spellings of the author’s name, adding to the sense of disconnect. The index is also sparse (Radcliffe’s name does not feature at all), which makes it difficult for the interested reader to navigate related subject matter.

The essays are largely accessible to interested non-specialists. This is important for any edited collection, since readers might pick up the volume for one particular essay or contributor, only to find their interest piqued by others. Those reading the whole collection will be amply rewarded – not only through contact with a rich and vivid range of source material, but because they can appreciate the fascinating intersections and overlaps that emerge across the volume. Many contributors fruitfully explore the temporal dimensions of fear, the way in which it is variously conceived as a response to past traumas or apprehension of dangers that lie ahead. I was particularly struck by Shuttleworth’s and Willis’ essays, both of which interrogate the rich interrelationship between the medical case study and cultural forms (a literary text and medical television dramas, respectively). These are some of the best examples of how the collection brings medical and literary discourse into dialogue.

Fear in the Medical and Literary Imagination reflects on and extends scholarly interest in the emotions, showing how a close reading of a particular feeling can shed considerable light on shifting medical and literary cultures, as well as beliefs, tastes, and sensibilities. The book traces commonalities and changing values over a significant stretch of time, and brings together a diverse body of work in literature and the humanities. The disparate nature of the volume is a challenge for the reader, and more tools to navigate the breadth of material would have been welcome. The collection will, nevertheless, attract a diverse readership and stimulate them to engage with new material, new interpretations, and new fields of enquiry.

Alison Moulds, Independent Scholar