Sophie Vasset
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Waters of desire
Promiscuity, gender and sexuality
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‘Waters of desire: promiscuity, gender and sexuality’ shows how spa towns were a favourite setting for narratives of transgression. Watering places were an imaginary space opening up possibilities of otherness in self-fashioning as much as in relationships. The chapter centres on bodily behaviours, and cultural constructions of the body. It starts with a section on ‘Nudity’, from the desirable neoclassical nudity of bathing women celebrated in the lyrical poetry of miscellanies to the farcical nakedness of men trapped on the beach with no clothes. The unusual proximity of bodies, the ‘dishabilles’ or ‘riding dress’ of women staged in songs and satire, created a suitable setting for the marriage market and adultery, as argued in the following section. A spa visit, in comedies and novels, triggered many possibilities of dangerous meetings and secret relationships. At the same time, women were represented with some degree of agency in such plots – many women would go to a spa independently of their husbands and their stories permeated many a narrative that used spas as a setting. Spa comedies revolved around the idea that the multiple public spaces of spa towns fostered performance in all manners of relationships, and mocked such theatricality of manners in their excessive characters. The last section, ‘Gender roles and gender fluidity’, offers to explore these excessive performative behaviours and the gender-bending possibilities they opened up.

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Murky waters

British spas in eighteenth-century medicine and literature


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