While the letters in the Tissot collection are very detailed, revealing the minutiae of daily life, including awkward experiences and events, other sources are remarkably quiet. A brief foray through the records available at www.oldbaileyonline.org, the fully searchable database of Old Bailey trial records from 1674 to 1913, demonstrates that some bodily experiences and activities are presumed to be too much to handle. Such activities are, therefore, obscured, though the language used still manages to make these activities clear to the reader.
Thus, we hear about ‘abominable crimes’ or ‘gross indecency’ or ‘unnatural offences’ or ‘b-g-y’ or ‘b—st—y’ or ‘entertaining Evil’ …. or other similar euphemisms. Details of crimes of a sexual nature (and here it must be noted that many of these activities are no longer classified as crimes in the UK or in Canada), it seems, were not usually seen fit to for public consumption.
Nevertheless, there are, today, still many forbidden stories, and many of these stories have to do with bodies and how we use them. Which stories do we tell? Which stories can we tell? What do we hide? What are the limits of life writing? Which elements of an embodied life matter?
In July 1792, a young philosophy student named Gauteron wrote a letter to Samuel Auguste Tissot apologising for having missed his appointment due to a scheduled exam. Over the next four months, he wrote three more times hoping for a response from the great doctor. A few months earlier, on May 15, 1792 at 2 o’clock, a young Englishman wrote a letter describing the melancholia that resulted from his ‘want of symptoms of virility’. Another letter, meanwhile, details the sufferings of Mlle Sirvin, whose complaints appear to arise from her early menstruation. Yet another offers a detailed reproductive history of Madame de Launay, whose temperament changed completely at the time of her marriage and who was subject to numerous miscarriages and finally, a horrific 60 hour labour, complete with forceps and c-section.
Thanks to Tissot’s extensive publications and his fame, we know quite a lot about him as a doctor. We know relatively little, however, about his patients, and about how they understood their bodies. The letters cited above, only a tiny sampling of the 1200 consultation letters housed in the Bibliotheque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, offer windows into their thought worlds. Micro-autobiographies, these letters reveal selves grappling with mysterious ailments, troubling bodily workings and the difficulties of translating the flesh into word.
What stories do these letters tell? What might they reveal? And how do these narratives relate to the stories we tell about our own bodies today….and from there, to the larger social, cultural and political contexts in which those stories are performed, narrated, and lived?