New research: Sunburn and tanning in Victorian medicine and culture

A new year brings a new project focus, although this one – on sunburn and tanning in Victorian medicine and culture – isn’t exactly new; it has been developing over the last few years, and has already generated a couple of publications, a number of talks, and some funding applications. The research process to date has been very piecemeal however, fitting around multiple jobs, cross-country moves and other publication priorities; but now that I am settled in a job and have wrapped up some other projects, this can take centre-stage as the next big project that I’ll be working on in coming years. It therefore felt about time that I (finally) write about the project here.

The project’s genesis was a footnote in my PhD thesis, where I noted that the suntanned traveller is a common trope in the Victorian novel, and that he typically appears as a positive figure: the benevolent imperialist (Peter Jennings in Gaskell’s Cranford), the doctor-saviour (Woodcourt in Dickens’s Bleak House), the marriageable sailor (Captain Kirke in Collins’s No Name). While these are often fleeting, incidental references, there seemed to be something interesting going on in the way in which suntanning was being used with these characters; suntanning was clearly being used to signify something, although it wasn’t immediately apparent exactly what. My attempts at interpretation were somewhat slippery, moving across and between different possible meanings; and these suntanned figures, almost all of them white British gentlemen travellers, seemed to push at the borders of so many expectations and concerns around Victorian bodily norms – race, masculinity, class, health.

I wrote this up into an article and then a section of my book on global journeys, and as I researched the subject I began to collect (and then, amass) a wealth of references to sunburn and tanning across the literary and cultural sphere. Suntanned figures are everywhere in Victorian writing, from dashing bronzed gentlemen travellers to lightly browned ladies in the Lakes, reddened jolly sailors to ruddy, hale farmers. Not only are they everywhere, but these references generate many, often conflicting, meanings, not just about suntanning but also more broadly about health, identity, status, and nationhood.

This project started then from trying to situate the suntanned traveller’s body and understand what he (and sometimes she) might mean. It has grown into a broader enquiry into understanding sunburn and tanning across the medical and cultural sphere, centring around the question: what did the Victorians think about when they thought about sunburn and tanning? What did suntanning mean to them, and why?

The commonly held assumption is that the Victorians thought about sunburn and tanning either negatively, or not at all; that sunburn was a marker of the labouring body – in the fields, at sea, or at war – and that it was only in the early twentieth century, with the advancement of scientific understanding about suntanning and health, that the tan became aesthetically appealing. My work moves existing research back by a period of 70 years or so to reveal a more nuanced picture about the history of suntanning in the Victorian period, one which has much to tell us about the Victorians’ attitudes to bodies and health, and about the ongoing cultural fascination with tanning today.

Looking at the period from around 1820 to 1890, I’m focusing on three areas of enquiry:

  • How was sunburn and tanning understood in Victorian science and medicine? Where did it fit in Victorian scientific enquiry – who was studying it, how and why?
  • How were sunburnt and tanned bodies ‘read’ in Victorian culture; what might this tell us both about what suntanning was coming to signify, and more broadly about Victorian ideas of the body?
  • How did knowledge move across the scientific and cultural spheres: how did advances in medical knowledge inform cultural perspectives on sunburn and tanning, and how was scientific enquiry into tanning shaped by cultural attitudes?

The range of literature the project encompasses is broad, to say the least. In science and medicine I am looking at literature in biomedicine and photomedicine which reveals early advances in understanding the constitution of the skin and the composition of UV light, and the field of tropical medicine which examines the impact of climate on health. My literary and cultural research includes the appearance of suntanned figures in fictional and non-fictional writing, from novels, poems and plays to rural and travel literature, examining these in relation to discourses of race, gender, class and health.

The fluidity across medical and cultural spheres takes shape in the (loosely termed) field of public health literature, from advice books and guides aimed at travellers and colonial settlers, to pamphlets and advertisements for new products to treat sunburnt skin – products like Rowland’s Kalydor, advertisements for which appear frequently in the pages of literary periodicals (this one is found in the adverts accompanying Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, for example):

picture1
Advertisement for “Rowland’s Kalydor”, found in the advertisement pages of many Victorian periodicals

As things currently stand I’ve done a lot of work in identifying sources for further research and in mapping out the conceptual framework of the project; the next stage is to undertake further archival research on the primary literature to build up a more detailed and nuanced understanding of these bigger questions. Thanks to a pump-priming funding award from Surrey’s Faculty of Arts I’m able to start on some library trips this month, in preparation for further grant applications this year. Once this is underway I’ll also start to work on the next publication outputs, revisit the monograph plans, and begin presenting on the research again – something which has generated a lot of useful feedback so far – as well as working on the opportunities for public engagement generated by this research, which speaks to some contemporary issues around cultural attitudes towards tanning today. Suggestions for further reading are very much welcome and I’d be grateful for any other leads that readers that might have.

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