Victorian Literature Contagion
Kari Nixon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0163


The study of contagion in Victorian literature may seem like a niche area of study, but understanding this focused topic depends upon deep foundational knowledge of many other concepts. Contagion was not a static concept over the course of the 19th century, as scientific innovations rapidly shifted epidemiological understandings. The result is that there is no overarching Victorian understanding of contagion, but rather, sets of disparate epidemiological concepts unique to different times, spaces, and social contexts, and even the predominant views at any given time were always actively debated. As debates about the nature of contagion itself shifted across the century—in a general movement from miasma theory, which posited toxic air as the source of disease, and toward germ theory, which posited individual microbes as the source of disease—concomitant debates about how to control and manage disease, the role of the government in so doing, and ideas of risk, community, and shared spaces also changed. Changing concepts of contagion also impacted thinking about societal roles, both individually and nationally. The role of the doctor in preserving health, and especially the doctor’s increasing professionalization and certification, was one of these considerations, as was Britain’s perceived role in colonial “improvement” projects abroad. Because of the role public health played in efforts to control or limit contagion, many scholarly considerations of Victorian contagion focus on surveillance and control of human bodies enacted by public health projects. Here, the debt to Michel Foucault will be obvious. Further, because protection and prevention against infectious disease necessitated locating the disease via surveillance and observational practices, many studies of Victorian disease focus on sight, seeing, optical technologies, and representation of sight in fiction and scientific texts. Finally, understanding contagion in this period also necessitates understanding the physical pathogens of most concern to Victorians because of their sheer prevalence. These include cholera, tuberculosis, syphilis, and, to a lesser extent, typhoid fever.


Weber 2000 is the most generalized anthology in the set, covering only primary sources. Otis 2002 goes a step farther, including also relevant passages from key literary texts that cover medical themes. Furst 2000 is the most comprehensive in context and contextualizing, including both primary and secondary texts, complete with explanations of their significance in their historical context.

  • Furst, Lilian, ed. Medical Progress and Social Reality: A Reader in Nineteenth-Century Medicine and Literature. Albany: SUNY University Press, 2000.

    Interweaves extended historical explanations with excerpts from primary source texts as well as from literary sources (such as Middlemarch, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Trollope’s Dr. Thorne), the latter always preceded by explanations of their significance and relationship to significant medical and scientific developments of the century. The result is a reader which combines the best elements of Otis, Weber, and Bynum.

  • Otis, Laura, ed. Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    A comprehensive and useful anthology covering many realms of Victorian science, including mathematics and evolution, but also general medical and bacteriological innovations. This volume is especially valuable for its inclusion not only of many important primary texts, but also relevant excerpts from literature that discuss the themes of each section. A useful primer on the subject that could also be used as a course reader.

  • Weber, A. S., ed. Nineteenth-Century Science: An Anthology. London: Broadview, 2000.

    A thorough volume which covers only primary source texts. The texts are not organized thematically, but each entry is preceded by a brief sketch of the author, situating their significant findings within the scientific or medical context.

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