Contagion by Conceit: Menstruosity and the Rhetoric of Smallpox into the Age of Inoculation

  • David E. Shuttleton


An incident towards the close of Sarah Fielding’s sentimental novel The Adventures of David Simple (1753) raises questions central to the concerns of this volume regarding how we interpret historical representations of contagion.1 The novel’s eponymous hero and his wife Camilla have received a request from Mr Ratcliff, their rich but autocratic and treacherous relation, demanding a visit from their son Peter, to whom he stands godfather. David’s difficult decision to refuse this request at the risk of undermining his son’s prospects is made easier when ‘young Peter fell ill of the Smallpox’. Camilla persuades David to write Ratcliff a ‘civil’ letter explaining ‘that the Boy was at present too ill to take a Journey, and they were apprehensive was breeding the Small-pox’ (p. 387). Affronted, Ratcliff replies with a tirade against their ingratitude and deception, to which he adds this postscript:

P.S. … you have rewarded all my dear wife’s good Offices to you, with her Destruction; for, by my being abroad, she unfortunately opened your Letter, and I found her in Fits on my return, with the Fright of seeing the name of the Small-pox in your careless letter: and you know too, she has never had that Distemper, (p. 386)


Medical Theory Bubonic Plague Arabian Physician Modern Assumption Innate Seed 
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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2005

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  • David E. Shuttleton

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