Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action IF - INTRARIB

“Intracorporeal Narratives: Reading Internal Biology in Women’s Literature, 1880s-1930s”

Louise Benson James.jpgAbout the project leader

Dr Louise Benson James is a postdoctoral researcher in the Literary Studies department at Ghent University, where she leads a research project funded by Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, H2020-MSCA-IF.

She holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Bristol, UK. Her thesis was entitled ‘Hysterical Bodies and Narratives: Medical Gothic and Women’s Fiction, Victorian to Contemporary’, and explored links between medicine and women’s fiction, examining the materiality of the body in women’s writing and medical texts published between 1850 and the early 2000s.

She was previously a lecturer in nineteenth and twentieth century literature at the University of Bristol, UK.

Her research focuses on gender and the body in medicine and women’s literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The project

The INTRARIB project examines British and American women’s fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for its depictions of internal anatomy: organs and systems, circulatory, nervous, reproductive, and digestive. This study will make a distinctive contribution to the field of medical humanities: the development of an analytical process of body-centred reading, and new analysis of how women’s writing communicates bodily experiences and depicts the ‘intracorporeal’, narrative journeys through concealed and invisible organs. The project questions: how do visualisations of the body's insides and internal workings change through time? Does literature reflect medical developments and discoveries, for example echoing the shift from the nervous to the hormonal body? How are metaphors employed to aid us in visualising these systems and parts: the nervous system as a network of vibrating strings, hormones as postal packages or chemical messages, the sperm and egg as static and kinetic, the biological clock? The project surveys the persistent desire to find a physiological rationale, to map pain internally, even when that pain has an emotional or psychological source. It also explores how changing conceptualisations of the body interact with gendered notions of pathology and disorder. Comparing fictional texts to medical writing and advertising of the same era, it will track the development of and interaction between the medical understanding of the internal body, communication in the public realm, and exploration in literature.

The project will run for 24 months from September 2021 until August 2023.


The aim of this project is to demonstrate how an imaginative, descriptive approach to the internal body is used by women writers to communicate experiential illness, disorder, and pain, and to claim ownership of corporeal experience. Within this, the project has the following five objectives:

  • To investigate the relationships, divergences, and shared languages between literary and medical depictions over the period 1880s – 1930s.
  • To investigate the nature and degree of assertions of ownership over the body through women’s depictions of the body’s internal anatomy and how this challenges critical narratives that see mentions of internal anatomy as exclusively metaphorical.
  • To examine the link between internal processes and mental health: the persistence of an organ-based understanding of psychological disorder, and how systems such as hormones and the microbiome are thought to impact the mind.
  • To further refine and apply an analytical process that centralises the body as a method of reading literary texts, to ask new questions about the body’s interior.
  • To further develop skills in understanding, studying, and analysing medical descriptions, to learn more about the body and its workings, and to investigate how this plays into wider social narratives about gender

Role of Ghent University

Ghent University is the beneficiary partner in this project. The English section of the Literary Studies department has an established reputation in the field of Victorian literature and the focus on gender within that. The project is supervised by Professor Marysa Demoor and supported by Professor Marianne Van Remoortel.


Dr Louise Benson James
Department of Literary Studies