Fellowship award for ‘nervous illness’ study

  • Date

    Thu 4 May 23

Dr Christopher Bundock against a British Academy background

The British Academy has awarded researcher Dr Christopher Bundock more than £150,000 to explore the invention and transformation of nervous illnesses in the 18th century.

Dr Bundock, an expert in Enlightenment and Romantic literature, has been awarded a prestigious Mid-Career Fellowship for the study, which will look at phenomena such as phantom limb pain, the ‘vapours’, and nymphomania.

In a nation increasingly obsessed with health and wellbeing, doctors of the time termed sicknesses that manifested themselves physically but had no apparent physical cause as ‘nervous illnesses.’ Dr Bundock will explore how notions of sympathy and the relationship between the rational mind and the passionate body resulted in their emergence and evolution.

He will study medical and philosophical texts as well as a range of creative literature including poetry by William Blake, the plays of Joanna Baillie and prose by Maria Edgeworth.

The project is inspired by the complicated role sympathy plays in works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in which the Creature believes he can join and contribute to society if he experiences sympathy.

However, as Dr Bundock explains, his project is “rooted in a suspicion toward this kind of reasoning. Even though sympathy seems like a solution to social and political problems, when pushed too far it becomes toxic, taking the form of, for instance, obsession.”

Dr Bundock, from the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, argues that in order to understand the emergence, in the later 18th century, of diseases defined as nervous, it’s vital to explore this dark side of sympathy.

“Looking at Enlightenment thought and Romantic literature we see sympathy’s toxicity manifested as nervous illnesses such as hypochondriasis, phantom limb pain, furor uterinus (nymphomania), the vapours, and morbid sensibility,” he said.

At a philosophical level, Dr Bundock’s project explores the age-old mind-body problem from a new angle, one that focuses on how feelings and emotions live in the grey area between intellect and flesh.

Beyond sympathy, key concepts for his examination of this grey area include ‘nerve,’ ‘sensibility,’ and ‘passion.’ Given the broad, cultural importance of these concepts for framing human experience in the period, the project also extends to themes such as nationalism and xenophobia, gender and sexuality.

The 12-month Fellowship, which starts in January 2024, will result in a book as well as performances of Baillie’s plays and public talks.