BOONE—Fran Thielman’s interest in medical history and her love of Victorian literature led to her award-winning paper titled “Jane Eyre and Public Health: A Closer Look at the Lowood School Epidemic.”
Thielman, a second-year graduate student in Appalachian State University’s Department of English, received the Patrick O. Scott Award during the national Victorians Institute conference. The award recognizes the best graduate student paper presented at the conference, which is for faculty and graduate students in Victorian studies.
Thielman is a native of Montreat and holds an undergraduate degree from Wheaton College. Her paper developed from a class she took on Victorian literature at Appalachian as well as her father’s interest in medical history.
“My dad is a doctor and he has always been interested in the history of medicine so that’s how I got started thinking about it,” she said.
Thielman argues in her paper that writer Charlotte Brontë used a portion of “Jane Eyre” to support establishing public health boards. She also is addressing the topic in her master’s thesis “The Reformer and the Eugenicist: Representations of Disease in Jane Eyre and Bleak House,” which she will defend in Spring 2014.
Thielman researched board of health reports and 19th-century London historical accounts related to epidemics and illness, including cholera that was prevalent during the time.
The historical records indicated that Victorian doctors blamed the poor for being sick because they were unclean and that the doctors failed to connect a lack of access to clean water to the spread of disease. Thielman argues in her paper that Brontë used the outbreak of typhus among the children at the fictional Lowood School for Girls to criticize how Victorians were failing to manage the spread of disease and to support creation of a public health board that would regulate sanitary conditions in London.
The United Kingdom’s Public Health Act was established in 1848, one year after “Jane Eyre” was published.
“It was a really good experience,” Thielman said of the conference presentation. “Presenting your research to other scholars is a great way to get good feedback from other professionals on ways you can improve it and also to know whether or not the research topic was a good idea and contributed something to the academic field.”
As part of the award, Thielman’s paper will be published later this year in the Victorians Institute Journal. “A lot of people don’t get published as a graduate student, so it’s nice for me to have that,” she said.
After graduating from Appalachian this spring, Thielman hopes to enroll in a Ph.D. program in the fall.