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Durham e-Theses
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Writing Illness and Identity in Seventeenth-century Britain

THORLEY, DAVID,ALWYN (2014) Writing Illness and Identity in Seventeenth-century Britain. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.



This thesis begins from the observation that seventeenth-century life-writing appears to have little recourse to the age's revolutionary medical developments when describing personal illness. It therefore seeks to explore the available textual frameworks for writing autobiographical accounts of illness, and the rhetorical strategies that writers of such texts used for adapting their illnesses to those frameworks.

My research is contextualised within discussions of early modern selfhood. Like a number of recent scholars, I reject the Burkhardtian assumption of a vibrant Renaissance self, born, fully formed, sometime during the Tudor age. I present examples of illnesses described both as self-obliterating and self-invigorating, but the moments of self-invigoration, I argue, are not evidence of a thoroughgoing subjectivity, but glimpses of a nascent, fragmentary and problematic selfhood, often kept forcibly in check by strict observance of religious routines and adherence to restrictive textual conventions for recording life events.

Those textual conventions, I claim, are best uncovered by attending – where possible – to the material texts of the various autobiographical sources I consult. From predominantly manuscript sources, I present examples of writers, for instance, using prescriptive methods such as that of financial accounting, or collecting and adapting non-original material to account for their illnesses, neither of which techniques suggests an introspective and sustained expression of selfhood in sickness.

I present chapters examining descriptions of personal illness in diaries, autobiography, letters and poetry, attending in each case to the ways in which illness and identity are written and rewritten. My evidence suggests that a sense of collectivity appears to dominate the life-writing of illness, one in which the subject is frequently defined by his or her participation in familial, social or religious networks, and in which material from other texts is collected and redeployed to account for events in an individual life. The textual frameworks examined in this thesis, I hold, are readily adaptable to accommodate and treat moments of personal crisis such as illness.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Arts and Humanities > English Studies, Department of
Thesis Date:2014
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:07 Mar 2014 15:02

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