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Rhiannon Cogbill

Languages and Literature, University of Birmingham

Thesis title:

Illness and the Body in the work of Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson and May Sinclair

Final thesis title:

Health and Unhealth: The Condition of Women in the Fiction of Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson and May Sinclair

This thesis analyses the relationships between women and unhealth in Virginia Woolf’s, Dorothy Richardson’s and May Sinclair’s early twentieth-century fiction, where unhealth is conceived as an umbrella term to accommodate the intersections of ‘physical’ and ‘mental’ disease, illness and sickness. Through a succession of close readings interlocked with critical approaches to life, work, care and medicine, it argues that these writers’ female characters become attached to unhealth, and that such recurring attachments affect the meaning of ‘woman’ more broadly. Drawing together scholarship in the medical humanities and disability studies to capture the contours of a pervasive socio-cultural construct brought to bear on these works, this thesis models an engagement with literary health that looks beyond perceived inherencies of biology or identity. Chapter 1 examines the motifs through which women’s domestic attachments to unhealth are figured in Woolf’s The Voyage Out (1915), Mrs Dalloway (1925) and Flush: A Biography (1933). Chapter 2 focuses on how similar attachments are made ordinary in Richardson’s Pilgrimage (1915–67), attending to domestic and professional arenas. Chapter 3 turns to the impacts of institutionalized medicine on the condition of women in Sinclair’s The Three Sisters (1914) and Life and Death of Harriett Frean (1922). This thesis finds that these writers do not understand women as ‘unhealthy’, but rather orchestrate a series of thematic, symbolic and structural bonds and commitments to produce a conceptual collocation between ‘woman’ and ‘unhealth’. An afterword underlines the significance of the thesis’s use of unhealth and its attendant reappraisal of the relationship between the medical humanities and disability studies.

This thesis was supervised by Professor Deborah Longworth (University of Birmingham), Dr Melissa Dickson (University of Birmingham) and Dr Claire Brock (University of Leicester).

I can be contacted at rhiannoncogbill@gmail.com.

Research Area

  • Languages and Literature


  • 'Medical and Financial Entanglements in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage’, Postgraduate Medical Humanities Conference, University of Exeter, 7-8 June 2018 
  • ‘“[H]er own rules for beef stew”: The “visible contours” of obsessive-compulsive disorder in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle’, Cultures of Anxiety, University of Bristol, 8-9 June 2017
  • ‘“Don’t look round”: The politics of the street encounter in Jean Rhys’s interwar novels’, The City as Modernist Ephemera, London South Bank University, 16 June 2017  

Other Research Interests

  • Affect studies
  • Cultural history
  • Feminist theory
  • Life writing


  • British Association for Modernist Studies (BAMS)
  • British Society of Literature and Science (BSLS)
  • Midlands Modernist Network (MMN)


  • Associate Fellow of the HEA, 2020
  • 'Victorian Literature' Second-Year Seminar Tutor, University of Birmingham, 2019-20
  • 'English in Your Subject' Seminar Tutor, Birmingham International Academy, 2019
  • 'Introduction to English Literature 1790 – Present' First-Year Seminar Tutor, University of Birmingham, 2018-19
  • 'English in Your Subject' Seminar Tutor, Birmingham International Academy, 2018

Conference Organisation

  • Conference Assistant, Transitions: Bridging the Victorian-Modernist Divide, University of Birmingham, 9-10 April 2018
  • Conference Assistant, British Association for Modernist Studies Conference, University of Birmingham, 29 June - 1 July 2017

Additional Activities

From September 2019 to March 2020, I worked alongside my PhD as the Collections and Archives Support Intern at the Museum of Royal Worcester. My responsibilities included auditing and organizing existing collections and archives images, with a focus on image licensing and product development; assisting with the research and curation of a new exhibition, identifying and handling collections objects with due care; supporting the funding bid for a future collaborative exhibition; working with archival material to research and answer public enquiries; and representing the Museum at an external training event.