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Exploring Victorian Travel Literature

Disease, Race and Climate

Jessica Howell

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Studies representations of white illness in Victorian travel narratives about Africa and the Caribbean

This interdisciplinary study explores both the personal and political significance of climate in the Victorian imagination. It analyses foreboding imagery of miasma, sludge and rot across non-fictional and fictional travel narratives, speeches, private journals and medical advice tracts. Well-known authors such as Joseph Conrad are placed in dialogue with minority writers such as Mary Seacole and Africanus Horton in order to understand their different approaches to representing white illness abroad. The project also considers postcolonial texts such as Wilson Harris’s Palace of the Peacock to demonstrate that authors continue to ‘write back’ to the legacies of colonialism by using images of climate induced illness.

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1. Prescribing hybridity: climate and the Victorian mixed-race subject
2. ‘It was too dangerous a place to show fear’: mapping disease and the body
3. To ‘pay most dearly for their folly’: the climate of African nationalism
4. ‘Climate proof’: women travellers and survival
5. ‘Self rather seedy’: colonial pathography

About the Author

Jessica Howell is Wellcome Research Fellow at the Centre for the Humanities and Health, King’s College London, where she researches health and the literature of empire. Her work bridges the fields of Victorian studies and the Medical Humanities by examining colonial illness narratives. She also serves on the board of editors for the University of California Medical Humanities book series with Rodopi.


By linking illness to the African environment, the five British writers Howell discusses wrote illness into the framework of Victorian once-popular disease theories. By adeptly exploring how and why her authors clung to anachronistic ideas, Jessica Howell makes a significant contribution to the histories of both science and literature.

- Barbara T. Gates, Alumni Distinguished Professor Emerita, University of Delaware

Starting with Mary Seacole's Wonderful Adventures, Jessica Howell's insightful study of Victorian travel writing emphasizes reactions to climate and disease. This is an excellent addition to analyses of nineteenth-century discourse about "the tropics."

- Patrick Brantlinger, James Rudy Professor of English, Indiana University

Exploring Victorian Travel Literature is a welcome addition to the literature on a range of themes congregating around the construction of tropicality, the politics of climatic discourse, medical-moral meteorology and the racial economy of health and disease. Howell expertly uncovers the diverse, and often contradictory, uses of climatic determinism in the age of high empire. It is to be hoped that its lingering echoes in our own day will not escape the notice of readers.

- David N. Livingstone, Queen’s University, Belfast, Social History of Medicine, vol 28, no 4

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