19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, No 15 (2012)

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‘Why, would you have me live upon a gridiron?’: Pain, Identity, and Emotional Communities in Nineteenth-Century English Convent Culture

Carmen M. Mangion


The history of pain, approached through phenomenology and the various rhetorics of pain can bring into sharp relief how pain is culturally derived and embedded in a society’s values and norms. This essay explores nineteenth-century Catholic interpretations of pain, utilizing biography to examine how and why corporeal pain functioned as a means of both reinforcing Catholic beliefs in the utility of pain and of coping with pain. It examines unwanted pain in a defined space, the convent, and through a particular source, the biography of Margaret Hallahan (1803–1868), founder of the Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena, written by the future prioress, convert Augusta Theodosia Drane (1823–1894) in 1869. Pain contributed to Hallahan’s identity: her corporeal suffering and its meanings, which were religious, cultural, and political, were embedded in her life story. Pain, as an ‘unpleasant sensory and emotional experience’, is treated in this essay as a subjective event given its meanings by both Hallahan and her biographer. If we look at the performance of pain through this lens of subjectivity, examining the tenor of the emotional experiences derived from Hallahan’s bodily pain, relationships, especially those with her religious sisters, spectators of her pain-full illness, come into high relief pointing to the relevance of community and the place of the convent. This approach lays out Hallahan’s life, as interpreted by Drane but refracted within the life of the religious community, to develop the interplay between these three actors: Hallahan, Drane, and the Dominican sisters. The rhetorics of pain in Hallahan’s life story will unfold through three themes: the hiddenness of pain, the relevance of imitatio Christi, and the issue of consolation. Hallahan’s painful illness was used to affirm her sanctity but also to remind Catholics of the responsibilities and utility of bodily pain. Pain, though represented as private and hidden, became public property with the publication of the Life and became an epistemological tool used to define, reproduce, and reify Catholic ideals of living with pain-filled unwanted somatic suffering.

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