Ohio University Press · Swallow Press ·

Reading for Health
Medical Narratives and the Nineteenth-Century Novel

By Erika Wright

“In Erika Wright’s concise, incisive Reading for Health: Medical Narratives and the Nineteenth-Century Novel, she reverses a formative assumption: instead of reading for illness, she focuses on well-being. She recovers narratives of prevention instead of therapeutic narratives, and those health-based stories have a different form; instead of a pattern of diagnosis/crisis/cure, narratives of health are stories of steady-state maintenance.”

Victorian Studies

“Offering a largely overlooked perspective, Wright adds to growing body of scholarship in the medical humanities by considering what she terms ‘hygienic’ Victorian novels. She argues that in contrast to the familiar therapeutic narrative arc of ‘prelude, crisis, and cure,’ hygienic narratives are premised on maintenance and prevention. …Wright’s volume not only represents an important contribution to scholarship on the Victorian novel, medical humanities, and narrative theory but also demonstrates the value of literature in helping improve medical education and communication. Summing Up: Highly recommended.”


“A fascinating and timely contribution to discussions concerning the interrelation of medicine and fiction.”

Heather Tilley, English Studies

“In its original uncovering of hygienic narrative strategies in the nineteenth century, Reading for Health proves to be an important contribution to interdisciplinary nineteenth-century studies scholarship with an interest in literature and medicine.”

Lorenzo Servitje, Victoriographies

In Reading for Health: Medical Narratives and the Nineteenth-Century Novel, Erika Wright argues that the emphasis in Victorian Studies on disease as the primary source of narrative conflict that must be resolved has obscured the complex reading practices that emerge around the concept of health. By shifting attention to the ways that prevention of illness and the preservation of well-being operate in fiction, both thematically and structurally, Wright offers a new approach to reading character and voice, order and temporality, setting and metaphor. As Wright reveals, while canonical works by Austen, Brontë, Dickens, Martineau, and Gaskell register the pervasiveness of a conventional “therapeutic” form of action and mode of reading, they demonstrate as well an equally powerful investment in the achievement and maintenance of “health”—what Wright refers to as a “hygienic” narrative—both in personal and domestic conduct and in social interaction of the individual within the community.

Erika Wright is an assistant professor of clinical medical education at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, associate director of USC’s HEAL (Humanities, Ethics, Art, and the Law) and Narrative Medicine master’s programs, and a lecturer in USC’s University Park Campus English department.   More info →


“Readers of Victorian novels will likely appreciate John Ruskin’s critique of “modern stories.” Disease and death are everywhere in nineteenth-century novels. Imagine Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1853) without Esther Summerson’s delirium or the fetid atmosphere of Tom-All-Alone’s, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) without a young Jane clutching a dead Helen Burns, or an Elizabeth Gaskell novel without industrial illness—whether Mary Barton’s inanition or the fluff in little Bessy’s lungs. For many scholars, the Victorian novel would not be Victorian without illness.…”
— Table of Contents and Introduction: “Becoming Patient Readers”


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Retail price: $80.00, S.
Release date: March 2016
240 pages · 6 × 9 in.
Rights:  World

Release date: March 2016
240 pages
Rights:  World

Additional Praise for Reading for Health

“Wright breaks new ground in Reading for Health. The act of focusing on health within a genre which prioritizes the narrative arc wrought by disease is itself a new way of looking. Her book is of interest not only to scholars of canonical nineteenth-century English literature, but also to instructors of narrative medicine and to medical professionals and medical professionals in training, who may use the book as an aid in bringing empathy into their practice.”

Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies

“Expertly crafted and exquisitely written, Reading for Health uncovers the strategies by which nineteenth-century novelists—writing in the wake of new medical theories and practices—make the vagaries besetting the desired end of ‘good health’ a thematic and structuring principle of their work, in the process upending traditional narratives of illness and cure. This is a spectacular addition to the burgeoning field of medical humanities and to narrative theory.”

Joseph A. Boone, author of The Homoerotics of Orientalism

“Erika Wright’s Reading for Health brilliantly shows how good health is not only a subject but a strategy of reading and writing worked out in the finest nineteenth-century novels. Good health is a rhetoric and an informing epistemology, constructing not just plots but readers. Wright is canny, sly, and remarkably able to get beneath the surface of novels—and her readers. An exhilarating study.”

James R. Kincaid, author of Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter, Annoying the Victorians, and others

“Wright’s thoroughly original analysis focuses not on narratives of illness, but on narratives of health. She concentrates on how authors meet the narratological challenge of thematizing hygiene—a task that requires novelists to depart from the model of crisis and resolution privileged in both case studies of illness and the form of fiction itself. Thus reading against the grain, Wright uncovers a hidden history of health and of the novel itself.”

Pamela K. Gilbert, author of Disease, Desire and the Body in Victorian Women’s Popular Novels

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