The Good Places of Sleep: Nineteenth-century Sleep Studies in Literature and the Sciences

We seem obsessed by the quality of our sleep in the early twenty-first century, yet the high point of sleep research was the second half of the nineteenth century, and particularly the period from 1880-1900, when modern sleep studies began. For the Victorians, sleep was an active state which enabled or disabled certain functions of mind and body. How one slept was therefore of considerable interest to the general public as well as to physiologists, physicians and neurologists. Concurrent with this avid attention to the epistemologies of sleep, utopian fictions employed sleep as a foundation for asking questions of ideal lives and worlds. Often, other worlds were entered through the medium of sleep. This seminar will consider the connections between sleep and utopia and ask whether sleep is itself a good place. It will do so, additionally, through an experimental methodology combining historical research with a participant ethnography in a contemporary sleep laboratory. The aim is to see how far contemporary sleep analysis offers us insight into histories of sleep and how the historical helps us to wider understandings of sleep today.


Martin Willis is Professor of English Literature at Cardiff University. Previously he held a Personal Chair in Science, Literature and Communication in the Department of English at the University of Westminster. His research focuses on literature, science and medicine, 1800 to the present. Of his eight books in this area, the most recent are Staging Science: Scientific Performance on Street, Stage and Screen(Palgrave, 2016), Literature and Science (Palgrave, 2015) andVision, Science and Literature, 1870-1920: Ocular Horizons(Pickering & Chatto, 2011). His present research has two strands: first, the representations of trance states, and especially the nature and condition of sleep, in literature, art and the sciences from the early nineteenth century to the present, and second, the analysis of methods of collaboration between the humanities and the sciences both now and historically.

Date & time

Tue 06 Nov 2018, 4.30–5.45pm


Theatrette, Sir Roland Wilson Building


Professor Martin Willis (Cardiff University)

Event series


Penny Brew
+61 2 6125 4357


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