The swooning Shakespearean body is mired in expressive crisis. The Shakespearean swoons that are brought into focus in this chapter are abyssal: they stage a fall into the dark depths of a body that is inaccessible to the modes of ‘reading’ attempted by other characters in the plays. This chapter examines pivotal swoons in Much Ado About Nothing (1598), Julius Caesar (c.1599) and Othello (1604), because these are plays in which bodies are explicitly presented as texts to be read and deciphered – and swooning reveals such processes of reading to be complex, fraught and/or tragically flawed. Each of these swoons occurs when the body cannot be parsed through the signifying systems available within the world of the play: when the systems by which bodies mean something – according to humoral theories of the body and/as character, or via narratives of differentiation according to sex and race and religion, for example – break down under pressure.
A plethora of passing out coincides with historic moments during which emotional demonstrativeness is highly valued: there is therefore a flourish of swooning in eighteenth-century novels under the rubric of sensibility. This chapter argues that the literary swoon has a crucial status in the discourse of sensibility: it is the most dramatic in a long list of textual somatic signs of sensitivity – sighs, blushes, tremblings, flinchings, agitations, palpitations, tears, fevers. But, paradoxically, the swoon pushes high sensibility over into insensibility. In sentimental literature, the swoon becomes a test of the aspirations to produce a communicable, socially useful version of interior feeling through a new rhetoric of the body. It is also an important component of evolving performances of gender: sentimental scenes of swooning fall back on the pleasures of regarding the inert female form, and a complex scenography is created around ‘fallen women’ (which might pertain to other sentimental depictions of suffering, such as the conditions of slavery). Focusing on feminine swooning in two novels separated by forty years – Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) – this chapter analyses their treatment of the swoon as symptomatic of differing attitudes towards the female body in relation to sensibility. As anxieties about sensibility and its representation in ‘feminine’ novels deepen towards the end of the eighteenth century, a morbid excessiveness of feminine feeling is linked to different types of falling: to the disastrous tumble of the ‘fallen woman’; to ‘falling ill’; to ‘falling into hysterics’.
This chapter explores some of the earliest surviving examples of swooning in English, in which the swoon’s symbolic power is bound up with the potential it allows for dramatic alteration: for conversion, for renewal, for sudden change, for spiritual revival into life from death. In the ‘Life of Mary Magdalen’ (c.1290), the swoon is bound up with religious renewal and transformation, and with the new life in ‘Crist’ that might come from a symbolic death. This early example binds suffering in childbirth to swooning, and anticipates the (apocryphal) artistic tradition of the Swoon of the Virgin during the Passion, bringing birth pangs and swooning together in an overwhelming agony that produces new life. This chapter also examine the relationship between passivity and passing out in terms of the construction of gender in the most famous swoony text of medieval literature, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (c.1380). Troilus, a ‘weldy’ knight, swoons spectacularly in this text and Chaucer provides us with a strikingly physiological account of the swoon. Criseyde also swoons at an important point in the text, and these paired but asymmetrical passings-out reveal much about mutuality and difference in the lovers’ relationship. The radical claims made by contemporary theorist Leo Bersani in respect of masochism are considered here alongside the erotics of suffering rendered through the medieval literary swoon. Attentively reading the swoons in Chaucer’s poem helps us to understand its larger patterns of transformation, including its movement into tragedy.
Chapter 58 of The Book of Margery Kempe documents how a priest new to Bishop’s Lynn takes on an eight-year commitment to read scriptural and devotional works to Margery Kempe, thus enhancing both her and his own spiritual expertise. Amongst the works they read and discuss together are Bridget of Sweden’s revelations, works by Walter Hilton, Bonaventure, and Richard Rolle. At the end of the list, however, Kempe offers a seemingly throwaway reference to ‘swech oþer’ works they also shared: ones which, so we contend, must have been both varied and numerous to fill up an eight-year period and which found their way into Margery’s writing in often covert – and possibly even unconscious – ways, as part of the Book’s strategy of authorisation. Although not named amongst the works listed in the Book, we argue that the ‘swech oþer’ texts, a term tantalisingly appended to the list of named books presented, would likely have included the thirteenth-century Liber specialis gratiae attributed to the Saxon nun Mechthild of Hackeborn (d. 1298). Drawing on some of the most vivid and compelling correlations between the two texts, we argue not only for Kempe’s familiarity with Mechthild’s writing but also for a much more central positioning of this earlier work within the literary and spiritual cultures of fifteenth-century England than has generally been understood.
This chapter argues that the swoon has had a crucial place in literature in English for the last millennia. Swoons occur in narratives at moments of high emotional intensity: they often dramatise ecstasy and grief. Swooning can indicate a profound disturbance of the human body’s balance, in literal fashion, and this introduction argues that swoons are presented in literature to be read and interpreted; and are often used by writers to explore bodily experiences that disturb or challenge dominant narratives of health. The swoon is explored as an event of the body that always also calls for the practice of hermeneutics: it is a ‘somatic testimony’, in the sense that Mary Ann O’Farrell suggests of literary blushing. Swoons are intimately connected to explorations of sickness and of dying; they cluster in narratives that are preoccupied with femininity and queer sexuality; and can be unsettling indicators of political instability (the swooning body as metonym of the body politic in disarray). A literary history of swooning is therefore also a history of crux points for how we have imagined the body, and in particular for evolving ideas of health, gender, sexuality and race. This chapter examines the ubiquity of falling and swooning as indices of high aesthetic response, from classical religious iconography to contemporary literary theory, and suggests a new basis for understanding the aesthetic through non-normative accounts of the body.
Encountering The Book of Margery Kempe in the twenty-first century
Laura Kalas and Laura Varnam
This introduction theorises and problematises the through-line of ‘encounters’ as full of dynamic, multiple, reciprocal, and disruptive potentialities for Margery Kempe studies. Harnessing the infamous ‘Pike Gate’ episode in the Book – as the editors term it – the introduction explores the ways in which Kempe transcends time and space as an un/popular, unruly holy woman always already everywhere. Arguing that Kempe encounters and refashions herself in order to reclaim her identity in an environment in which she is often reduced to a figure of mythology, the editors consider her fluctuating status as both legitimate and infamous; existing in and out of ‘truth’ as at once real and fictionalised. The asynchrony of the Book makes ‘something out of joint’ about Kempe, as Carolyn Dinshaw posits; the space of the feasting room in the worshipful lady’s house functions as a heterotopia where she exists, in Foucauldian terms, as ‘simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted’. Elucidating the volume’s four categories of encounter – textual, internal, external, and performative – the introduction explores the way in which The Book of Margery Kempe energetically and deliberately resists categorisation. In considering the volume’s chapters as dynamic, and often collaborative, encounters themselves across time, text, theory and mode, Kempe’s Book is brought into conversation with modern and medieval worlds to offer new, critical opportunities. The multiple encounters inside and outside of the Book gesture towards the very slipperiness of who we might deem Margery Kempe to be, and what our own encounters with her Book might mean.
This chapter considers feminine swooning in romance fiction by female writers in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, arguing that the swoon offers the possibility of innovation and transformation, but also risks cliché and bathos. This chapter examines Carol (1952), Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking queer romance text, suggesting that Highsmith deploys fainting in a way that anticipates the work of ‘crip theory’ to challenge norms of sexuality and the healthy body concurrently: she valorises elements of sickness in order to challenge ‘health’ as construed by a heteronormative culture. In contrast to Highsmith’s work, E. L. James’s depictions of feminine sinking in the Fifty Shades of Grey (2012) novels are presented alongside Alexander Pope’s Peri Bathous, or the Art of Sinking in Poetry (1728) to argue that the sinking James depicts might be understood as a form of bathos or disappointed hope: a falling into cliché ideas of gender submission. James’s work sets itself up in relation to several historical works of literature, including Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), but travesties its literary precedents into bathos. Nostalgia – the desire for temporal sinking back – is embedded in these novels as the eroticisation of past female powerlessness, largely produced through (mis)readings of iconic literary moments, including swoons. As a final contrast to James’s bathetic approach to the past, this chapter considers Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ (1979) and a reimagining of gender relations that hinges on a depiction of female faintness.
The Book of Margery Kempe has, since the earliest days of its rediscovery, been read as an autobiography. This chapter explores the dynamics at play in this generic ascription, arguing that the post-structuralist emphasis on autobiography as a mode of reading rather than one of writing can help to lay bare some of the effects of treating the Book as a historical witness to a life. In exploring the responses of readers, both academic and general, to the provocations of this text the chapter draws parallels between autobiographical reading and the tendency towards diagnostic and pathologising interpretations of Kempe’s story common in late twentieth-century interpretations of the Book. These interpretations, it is argued, are prefigured and guided by the Book’s own structural concerns and by a number of key episodes of Middle English interrogation, interpretation, and diagnosis. As moments of tension and sometimes violence, the episodes of the Book allow us to recognise in our own autobiographical desires a tendency towards control and domination of fluid narratives. In recognising the complicity of both text and reader in such analytical gestures, this chapter seeks to stress the affective and semiotic entanglements that constitute any moment of encounter, and further to suggest that an approach that recognises the essential role such dynamics play in the formation of Margery Kempe herself open the way for readings that reflect, in their own capacious way, an important part of The Book of Margery Kempe.
This chapter presents a fresh approach to the Book by applying current methodologies of oral history to analysis of its internal operations. In particular it draws upon the notion of intersubjectivity, and post-positivist approaches to memory, in order to shed new conceptual light on the processes by which the Book was created. The frequency with which Margery tells and retells her life story in the Book is striking. This happens over a twenty-year period before the Book was finally written down, and often via the medium of confession. By the time Margery came to have the Book written she had thus had extensive opportunities to retell and collaboratively refine her life story with clerics who are described as highly educated, and/or holding high office, and, in one case, of saintly reputation. This enabled her to ensure that the final, recorded version of her life story was convincing, in order to support the claims it made about her holiness. This chapter contends that the Book allows us access to vital truths about the experiences of an individual medieval woman, and the society in which she lived, regardless of the precise accuracy of events described within it. In taking this approach the argument is especially influenced by Daniel James’s study of the life of Doña Maria Roldán, based on her personal testimony. Thus, engaging with the methodologies of oral history allows for new reflection on the status of the Book as History, in relation both to medieval and modern epistemologies of historical truth.
This chapter re-examines Margery Kempe’s Jerusalem pilgrimage in relation to Jerusalem’s multiracial soundscapes and the place of her orthodox Christian tears within this soundscape. Margery Kempe’s tears are quotidian in the cosmopolitan soundscapes of multiracial and multireligious late medieval Jerusalem. This analysis also includes an interactive portion in the form of a Margery Kempe YouTube channel that has 360-degree video. This interactive DH section also rethinks feminist immersive DH models in relation to 360-degree video versus virtual reality and how race, gender, disability inform feminist DH models in working with immersive DH. Finally, the chapter considers Margery Kempe’s tears in her return to a white hegemonic Christian England and the issue of white women’s tears in affective devotion.