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Bodies politic: somatic politics and ‘meaning making’ in medicine and literature
  1. Margaret Healy
  1. Correspondence to Dr Margaret Healy, Reader in English, School of English, Arts B, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton BN1 9QN, UK; m.j.healy{at}

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Just how thoroughly the diseased body and its medical management can be absorbed into political discourse and enter a fraught public arena of debate is illustrated by the fascinating article in this issue about Caroline of Ansbach, wife of George II.1 As Emrys Jones describes, in her relative youth, as a fecund model of ideal motherhood—successfully raising seven of her children through to adulthood and even going to the unusual length of breast feeding them herself—Caroline's royal body functioned as a potent symbol of the sound health and nurturing capacities of the Hanoverian dynasty and, by extension, of the Whig political regime it supported (see page 13). This image was severely disrupted, however, when Caroline was afflicted with a hernia during the birth of her youngest daughter in 1724 and many years later suffered the indignity of a ruptured bowel followed by a slow and excruciatingly painful death. Among Georgian political scribblers a battle was on for what Susan Sontag has described as the ‘rhetorical ownership of … illness’ with the meaning of Caroline's strangulated hernia taking centre stage in the propaganda wars between Tory and Whig factions.2 As Jones illustrates, the implications of her protracted illness and tortured body could be incorporated into somatic–political narratives both positively and negatively depending on the political allegiances of the writer. The queen's body was not her own it seems: it was capable of radiating potent moral, social and political meanings into the public sphere. But how might we understand such a thorough-going interplay of the medical with the political?

Interestingly, at the same time as the queen was entering the chronically ailing phase of her life, the noted Georgian philosopher Giovanni Battista Vico (1668–1744) was publishing his influential reflections upon the widespread human tendency to analogise from the body:

It …

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  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.

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