Seminar – Medicine, work, and emotions in mid-century Mills & Boon novels

Agnes Arnold-Forster
(University of Roehampton)

Bio:  Agnes Arnold-Forster is a medical and cultural historian of modern Britain. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the Wellcome Trust Investigator Award, Surgery & Emotion, based at the University of Roehampton, and Project Manager on the Wellcome Trust Collaborative Award, Living with Feeling, at Queen Mary, University of London. She completed her PhD on the history of cancer in nineteenth-century Britain at King’s College London in 2017.

Abstract:  This paper will explore how romantic fiction was used to mediate medical knowledge and cultivate the ‘emotional landscape’ of the hospital in mid-20th-century Britain. Throughout the century, and particularly from the foundation of the NHS onwards, storylines set in hospitals turned the pages of English-language novels. Yet, despite the prevalence of romantic medical themes in popular culture, historians of medicine and emotions in modern Britain have only partially addressed this rich and wide-ranging source material.[1] This paper will, therefore, use ‘Doctor-Nurse’ romances published by Mills & Boon between 1948 and c.1970 to show how romantic medical narratives were a widely-consumed way for patients and members of the lay public to access the inner worlds of healthcare and hospitals. Mills & Boon strove to create romantic but always authentic worlds. Thus, these texts were invariably written by women with nursing experience. Reading the novels alongside the extensive correspondence between authors and editors contained in the Mills & Boon archive allows us to access both fictional and real hospitals and explore the working and romantic lives of the men and women who inhabited them. I argue that emotions were central to the expectations patients had of their practitioners; the development of medical stereotypes and identities; and to the relationships between different professionals. Finally, because medical women read and wrote these romances, this book provides an unusual insight into female nursing, freelance and creative labour; as well as the consumption of ‘low-brow’ culture, and its influence on gender identity and conceptualisations of healthcare, romantic love, and sexuality in Postwar Britain.

[1] For example, J. Miller, ‘Passionate Virtue: Conceptions of Medical Professionalism in Popular Romance Fiction’, Literature and Medicine, 33 (2015), 70-90.

Wednesday, 17th October 2018, 12.45 pm – 2.00 pm
Venue: LG8, Keppel Street Building