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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Syphilis in Victorian Literature and Culture: Medicine, Knowledge and the Spectacle of Victorian Invisibility

Unhealthy Sights and the Conspiracy of Silence

By the end of the century new voices began to demand the right to knowledge about the disease and its dire consequences. The strategies of these new groups - New Women, feminists and the authors of domestic medicine manuals - show intriguing parallels with medical practices aiming to establish professional authority through a continual insistence on the possession of esoteric knowledge. Professing a novel and more open access to medical knowledge, the self-pronounced popularizers of medical science put forward claims to professional authority and to the economic gains with which it had been associated.

The trope of syphilis recognition became a paramount empowering instrument in the battle waged against the medical establishment. The ‘conspiracy of silence’ became a slogan jointly used by the new groups to identify a set of practices that obstructed or entirely denied many social groupings, especially women, the right to qualified knowledge and that were legitimized by a rhetoric of moral concern and defence of innocence. Despite divergent political agendas, they used the trope of syphilis recognition as an empowering instrument. Whereas Hutchinson employed it in professionalization debates and used it to argue for a broader, life-long education for professionals based on bedside observations, these groups used it to question social standards. Paradoxically, however, they also participated in policing knowledge about the disease. While overtly linking the trope of syphilis recognition to debates about education inequalities, these new discursive arenas also evinced the instrumental role of syphilis in numerous political and economic struggles.

Referencing Cicely Hamilton’s rhetorical use of the disease in her militant Marriage as a Trade (1909), this section sets off to link the trope of syphilis recognition to broader questions of education as well as to the issues of sustenance and economy. First, it examines Hamilton’s claims concerning the limited access to knowledge about the disease by inspecting two potential spaces of its public visibility: domestic medicine manuals and popular anatomy museums. Sketching some of the historical developments in both areas, it demonstrates how both of them used popular education as a justification of their openness about the disease. Addressing the ways in which syphilis was visualized, this part identifies the panoply of practices which blatantly contradict the supposedly educational mission of domestic medicine manuals and public anatomy museums by carefully regulating access to esoteric knowledge. These regulatory mechanisms produced a link between knowledge distribution and economic gain and thus were a prominent constituent in the professionalization debate of the time.

Agaisnt this backdrop, the final section inspects the ways in which the trope of syphilis recognition was used by New Woman writers as a viable instrument in the establishment of their authority, which at the same time homogenized existing spaces of, if partial, syphilis visibility and turned them into sites of concealment. Taking as example Sarah Grand’s Heavenly Twins (1893), it shows the extent to which New Woman writers continued to produce the invisibility they strove so fervently to unveil. Like medical men, public anatomy museums and domestic medicine manuals, New Women created ambiguous spaces in which syphilis was only partially visible as they conjoined their educational agendas with existing economic concerns.

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