Awards & Funding

2019/20 MA Dissertation Prize

Rachel Feldberg, winner of the 2019/20 dissertation prize, introduces us to her work on “Absent Bodies?: Illness, Embodiment and the Articulation of Gender, Winifred and William Constable (1768-1773)

Anton von Maron (1733-1808). Portrait of William and Winifred Constable depicted as Marcius Porcius Cato and his wife Marcia, 1773. Oil on canvas. Leeds Museums and Galleries/The Burton Constable Foundation. 
Photo: The Courtauld Institute. Image reproduced by kind permission of the Burton Constable Foundation.

Late in 1769 William Constable (1721-1791), a wealthy, enlightened Catholic with a keen interest in science and a large estate north of Hull, left his heated stove garden and plans for a grandiose stable block and set off for the English Hospital in Liège with his devoted sister Winifred (1730-1774). They were chasing a new cure for William’s debilitating gout, touted by the controversial Jesuit physician, Dr Le Fevre.  After weeks of gruelling treatment they journeyed on to Lyon, where they had a noteworthy encounter with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and then over the Alps to Italy. Meanwhile, back in London Le Fevre’s treatment provoked a pamphlet war, with conflicting claims of cure and quackery trumpeted in the London Magazine and the Critical Review.

We know much of this because Winifred documented every aspect of her brother’s symptoms, treatments and their effects in her meticulous ‘Daily Record  of Illness of “My Brother”’. She seemed more at ease with enumeration than writing and demonstrates an unusual understanding of clinical practice, coupled with a growing agency and confidence in her ability to interpret her brother’s condition. She described William as ‘perfectly well’ on just fifteen days of their eighteen month journey, but  William himself made almost no reference to his health in letters home to his friends and his half-brother, Marmaduke.

Instead William crafted an impression of energetic activity. Le Fevre explained it would take up to two years for William’s treatment to work, William immediately considered himself as ‘in cure’. In Rome in February 1771, he detailed a busy round of engagements: ‘the morning till 12 to myself, then My Byres & Antiquity & Pictures & Sculptures till four or Later. after [sic] Dinner, Dress, Crowds, Conversation, Cards. Concerts’.[1]  During the same few weeks Winifred described how William was at a crowded Lent Carnival entertainment when: ‘seized with a violent pain in his Kidneys with great difficulty got from the Masquerade and into Bed’.[2] Winifred was only too aware that any trajectory of improvement was constantly interrupted. 

My dissertation set out to unpick what each of the siblings chose to reveal and conceal in relation to William’s health. I wanted to establish to what extent gender and religion affected their expression of illness and embodiment (the tangible results of their conception of mind, body and soul) across their epistolary and visual representations. Taken together, Winifred’s Record and William’s letters create a complex and contested  picture of illness and health. Even in its absence, William’s body is constantly manifested in a variety of forms while Winifred’s corporality is frequently erased. The more she writes about his health the less he needs to.

The Constables’ journey coincided with a reframing of  masculine identity and an increasing acceptance of sensibility and feeling. William was troubled by what he saw as contradictions in his masculinity. He struggled to reconcile a desire for stoic self-control, springing from his Jesuit education at the English College in Douai, with an overpowering sensibility. Henry Mackenzie’s sentimental novel Man of Feeling (1771) sees the hero Harley, grapple with many of the dilemmas William experienced, as he sought to balance his pre-disposition for feeling with a fear of weakness and excess. 

At the same time, amidst a growing rhetoric of feminine modesty, sociability and maternal domesticity, there’s evidence that rather than accept a world of separately gendered spheres, women were blurring the boundaries, operating across the public, private or domestic domain as need dictated. Elite women in particular, Ingrid Tague suggests: ‘could ignore, accept, or even exploit ideals of feminine behavior’.[3] Winfred seems to have been one such woman. She was educated at York’s Bar Convent where young recusants were secretly given a wide-ranging education comparable to that of their brothers, and she grew up in a world where science and medicine  were the stuff of every day conversation. 

Living with William brought Winifred significant independence; she read Rousseau, commissioned furniture from Thomas Chippendale, and with her brother, collected and drew botanical specimens. Alleviating William’s illness seems to have begun as another joint project. Her ‘Daily Record’ foregrounded her role as a ‘scholar physician’ rather than practical care giver, enumerating every stool and vomit  in a rational account which ran counter to feminine sensibility. Over time her regular, empirical  observations and the discrepancies they highlighted, encouraged Winifred to reflect on her knowledge and consider a range of medical alternative. The very act of recording William’s illness changed Winifred’s understanding of the body’s operation and encouraged her sense of agency. 

Winifred was secure in her self-fashioning as William’s loyal, devoted sister. Underpinned by her Catholic faith and education, her actions were widely applauded as an exemplary expression of love and duty. William, by contrast, occupied a number of shifting positions: active recovering patient, sensible man of learning, well-connected, wealthy connoisseur, friend of Rousseau’s and, as he confessed to the philosopher a broken-hearted, if chaste, lover. Winifred’s maid, Hannah, was he explained ‘dear to my heart’ and he was ‘a thousand times unhappy’ when he had to send her back to England after she engaged in an affair with a footman.[4]

William might have been unwilling to share details of his swollen limbs  publicly when asked to give evidence on the effects of Le Fevre’s treatment, but he didn’t hesitate to demonstrate his sensibility in a long, emotional letter to Rousseau about his broken heart. Meeting Rousseau, for whom he developed great admiration, legitimised William’s efforts to reconcile feeling and self-command and enabled him to re-fashion himself as a man of both learning and taste.

After the debacle with Hannah, William announced his intention to retire from the world and retreat to his books. His confidence in his new position was encapsulated in a fashionable double portrait commissioned from the popular artist, Anton von Maron, before they left Rome. Eschewing passion in favour of familial affection, it depicts William as Cato, the virtuous stoic, military general and incorruptible senator with Winifred as his wife. Winifred’s constant attention to her brother’s health had consigned his bodily considerations to a private, domestic world, and allowed him to concentrate on a search for knowledge and self-improvement. 

In Von Maron’s portrait, William put his body on display and assumed the unfamiliar role of husband, general and political leader- civic offices barred to English Catholics. Von Maron’s painting re-positioned Winifred centre stage, a figure of authority and moral purity in an image which nodded to portrayals  of Catholic saints and enshrined the importance of the siblings’ relationship.

Despite its apparent absence, William’s body and anxiety over its representation dominated the Constable’s trip to Europe. It was omnipresent in Winifred’s ‘Daily Record’, reflected in the form and tone, if not the text of William’s letters and both concealed and revealed in von Maron’s portrait. For the Constables, gender and religion played a significant role in shaping their expression of embodiment across both epistolary and visual representations. 

The Constables’ home, Burton Constable Hall,  is open to the public: https://www.burtonconstable.com/


[1] BLELC: 229 ff.22-23, William Constable to Marmaduke Tunstall, Rome, 2 February-24 March,1771.
[2] ‘Daily Record  of Illness of “My Brother”’11 February 1771.
[3] Ingrid Tague, Women of Quality: Accepting and Contesting Ideals of Femininity in England, 1690-1760 (Boydell Press, 2002), p. 7.
[4] Burton Constable Foundation: William Constable to J.J. Rousseau, Florence, 11 Oct. 1770.

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