The Cult of Invalidism

14 Aug

During the Victorian era there arose a fashion for invalidism. This ‘cult’ challenged the male desire for fertile, hourglass figures since the invalid woman was thin, frail and rendered so ‘ill’ as to jeopardise her reproductive potential. Invalidism was a continuum stretching from the woman who had occasional fainting fits in ‘extreme’ situations (such as walking in the garden), to women who limited their own movement and refused food. However, since the invalid mimicked masculine values of femininity, it was difficult to ascertain at what point the female quest for a thin waist and a passive demeanour became a form of transgression. While the extreme self-starver could be classified as anorexic, infantilised and returned to the masculine notion of the ideal female, most invalids were not so easily diagnose and accordingly found a form of resistance which was able to challenge masculine norms. In The Heavenly Twins, Colonel Colquhoun sums this up during Evadne’s illness which causes him to lament ‘[w]hat a damned nuisance these women are…There’s always something the matter with them!’[1]

Like hysteria and anorexia, invalidism was based upon social status, as well as gender. In Wives and Daughters, Lady Cumnor ‘having married her two eldest daughters…had leisure to be an invalid’. This ‘leisure’ reveals that invalidism was an occupation with which women chose to engage. Able to select the times for a bout of ill health, Lady Cumnor was ‘too energetic to allow herself this indulgence constantly.’ When she wished to be active, her health miraculously returned, and conversely, when she desired rest, such as following ‘a long course of dinners, late hours, and London atmosphere’, she ‘permitted herself to break down.’[2] Thus, invalidism provides Lady Cumnor with options – to be an active participant in public and private affairs, and to shirk all responsibility when it suits her mood. Invalidism was used as a form of power or social leverage since the woman who restricted herself to the sofa became centre of attention and was granted an excuse to avoid undesirable situations. Invalid women thus stepped simultaneously into the socially acceptable by becoming weak and passive, and the social nuisance who commanded the household from her place on the settee.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

[1] S. Grand, The Heavenly Twins (Charleston: BiblioLife, 2009), p.578

[2] E. Gaskell, Wives and Daughters, p.91


One Response to “The Cult of Invalidism”

  1. Tea in a Teacup August 18, 2011 at 2:55 am #

    This reminds me powerfully of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, where Anne Elliot’s younger sister is always “fancying herself ill”. I wonder how pervasive it was in actual society!

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