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Stephanie Peebles Tavera, (P)rescription Narratives: Feminist Medical Fiction and the Failure of American Censorship

Margaret Jay Jessee
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Stephanie Peebles Tavera, (P)rescription Narratives: Feminist Medical Fiction and the Failure of American Censorship, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2022, 240 p., ebook (PDF), ISBN: 9781474493215, £85.00.

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1Stephanie Peebles Tavera’s (P)rescription Narratives makes an important contribution to the literary history of gender and medical narratives as well as intervening into critical conversations concerning literary affect and material feminisms. Tavera begins her discussion on nineteenth-century medical narratives with Annie Nathan Meyers’s fascinating (and underappreciated) 1892 novel, Helen Brent, M.D. The novel’s main character, a woman physician battling dominant gender ideology of her time, writes a patient a literal prescription—“complete with the Rx symbol,” Tavera points out—for bodily agency through exercise, not wearing a corset, and seeking out the “quiet of her room, if desired” (2). Derived from the Latin word for “recipe,” in the United States, Rx is the common symbol used as shorthand for “prescription.” Tavera uses the concept of a prescription that “underscores the material affect of social conventions upon the bodies of young women” as a framework for her own project (2). The greatest effect of Anthony Comstock’s morality laws against women’s reproductive rights, Tavera argues, “was its success in manufacturing shame,” something women writers of medical fiction like Meyers opposed through the characters’ prescriptions for resistance to those “social conventions upon the bodies of young women” (4). (P)rescription Narratives “historicizes and theorizes the role of narrative affect in storytelling as an oppositional act of reclamation and reanimation of the female body writ large” (4). Tavera suggests that these medical fictions ultimately “prescribe” bodily autonomy as an “antidote” to the shame that Comstock’s America created (4).

2The use of the (P) in her title, Tavera explains, is really a compromise. She would prefer “Rxe-scription” but finds this too burdensome in print. Yet, the goals of (P)rescription and Rxe-scription are the same: they represent Tavera’s theoretical concept of the ways medical fictional narratives can rewrite cultural narratives concerning gender, race, and disability. Tavera provides a lengthy explanation of how the play on prescription as (p)rescription connotes a rescription or rewriting of material language, but this section does feel a bit more clever than helpful. While Tavera’s work makes important contributions to critical conversations surrounding how literary narratives are shaped by and still shape cultural narratives, the extensive discussion of linguistic play does not always clarify as much as Tavera suggests.

3To develop her intriguing argument that women writers of medical fiction shaped ideologies of gender, race, and disability, Tavera closely reads texts by Louisa May Alcott, Rebecca Harding Davis, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Angela Weld Grimké, among others. These readings work to show the various ways women writers of medical fiction (and of lynching plays in Grimké’s case) imagine their narratives as antidotes, therapies, and prescriptions against the shame created by medical communities and the American culture of censorship. The concept of disability, Tavera argues, gets “rescripted” in Alcott’s and Gilman’s works as “a product of both linguistic and material processes” (30) while Harper’s Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted offers a therapy in a “path toward healing from the trauma of slavery and the Civil War” (106).

4As these two very different examples suggest, Tavera’s project is ambitious and certainly wide-reaching in scope. In fact, her argument that narrative affect functions as a (p)rescription is intended to have four major critical interventions: 1. An intervention into the field of women’s literature in America; 2. An intervention into genre studies; 3. An intervention into narrative medicine as the term applies to the medical humanities; 4. An intervention into affect theory (6).

5Tavera’s insights into women’s literature include her perspective that women writers like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Louisa May Alcott “rescript the concept of disability as a product of both linguistic and material processes” (30). This is key to her intervention into women-authored narratives as she suggests their treatment of disability such as invalidism and hysteria were written as a response to and a critique of the rhetoric of gendered disability in the nineteenth century. That is, Tavera’s analysis suggests a linguistic resistance on the level of language as they incorporated active rather than passive language into their narratives of resistance.

6Tavera’s work intercedes into conversations surrounding narrative medicine, affect theory, and genre studies simultaneously by arguing that these women-authored novels, long associated with generic categories like regionalism, realism, or local color, are instead examples of narrative medicine. She links this claim with affect theory, as narrative medicine is a genre designed to elicit an affective response in the reader. For example, she argues that the affective nature of listening creates a rather complicated but useful analysis of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s Dr. Zay. There is, Tavera argues, a “narrative affect in producing the expected readerly response of the writer” (69), and that affect teaches readers “how to listen for the experiences of the New Woman doctor from a narrative medicine standpoint” (70). As examples of narrative medicine rather than simply local color or regionalism, these texts have the power to reshape or “rescript” women’s medical novels into powerful texts of empathy and affect designed to change the general impression of women in medicine. Tavera goes on to make similar claims about Rebecca Harding Davis’s Kitty’s Choice, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, and Annie Nathan Meyer’s Helen Brent, M.D. In each case, Tavera links the genre of narrative medicine to the affective relationship between text and reader whereby the reader feels deeper empathy with the women physician character.

7While ambitious, Tavera’s project succeeds in covering such a large scope. Her ability to connect each woman-authored narrative to the linguistic materiality that contextualizes those narratives allows readers to see each major intervention. Whether she is arguing that Gilman and Davis craft narrative animacy working against discourses trying to de-animate disabled female bodies or that Elizabeth Stuart Phelps creates the concept of the New Man as a rescript for the New Woman, thus working to heal traumas of national gender oppression, Tavera’s study is always thoroughly developed and convincing. (P)rescription Narratives is crucial reading for anyone interested in the biosocial history of gender, race, and disability in American studies.

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Margaret Jay Jessee, « Stephanie Peebles Tavera, (P)rescription Narratives: Feminist Medical Fiction and the Failure of American Censorship »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/21244 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.21244

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Margaret Jay Jessee

The University of Alabama at Birmingham

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