“Plagues that Fascinate:” Literary Leprosy and Queer Affect in the Victorian Fin de Siècle

Mackenzie Gregg
UC Riverside

This dissertation explores the centrality of leprosy to fin de siècle literature and culture, moving through travel narratives, religious tracts, medical journals, poetry, visual art, and archival sources in order to trace the way in which sexually dissident and otherwise outcast Victorians negotiated their desire, isolation, embodiment, and social dissent through the figure of the leper. The project situates this discussion in the context of British anxieties about the possibility of leprosy moving from the colonies to the center of empire, considering the relationship between the criminalization of leprosy and the criminalization of queer bodies and texts during the period between 1885 and 1900. It argues that leprosy was a crucial literary form through which modern gay identity and modernist literary form developed. The first chapter discusses the politics of love, caretaking, and desire between leprous and the non-leprous bodies through the work of A.C. Swinburne. The second chapter traces the trope of the leprous aristocrat in Oscar Wilde’s oeuvre. The third chapter explores lesbian embodiment in the Siberian travel narratives of Kate Marsden. The fourth and final chapter discusses the poetics of leprosy into the early 20th-century works of the playwright and illustrator Laurence Housman.