Hysteria in the Victorian Novel

17 Aug

In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir writes that the hysteric reveals herself through her body’s uncontrollability, expressing her ambivalent position within patriarchal society:

the woman denies responsibility [for her body]; in sobs, vomiting, convulsions. It escapes her control, it betrays her; it is her most intimate verity, but it is a shameful verity that she keeps hidden. And yet it is also her glorious double; she is dazzled in beholding it in the mirror; it is promised happiness, work of art, living statue; she shapes it, adorns it, puts it on show.[1]

However, Victorian hegemony refused to acknowledge any positive aspect of the condition, instead emphasising only its shameful connotations. This bias originated from the dominant ontology of Cartesian dualism, which posited a mind/body division that gendered the intellect as masculine and bodily urges as feminine. Hysteria was thus regarded as the feminine escaping masculine control. As will be argued, since the masculine ‘universal signifying order’[2] of symbolic language posited ontological possibilities, the hegemonic order was thus able to exclude alternative forms of female being. Central to such a strategy was the medical profession’s enforcement of a Cartesian theory in which the distinct mind and body were gendered in order to maintain the notion of hysteria as a feminine source of shame. However, the psychosomatic nature of hysterical symptoms destabilised masculine Cartesian dualism and thus threatened one of the foundations upon which the hegemonic order rested.

This nineteenth century Cartesian interpretation of hysteria is portrayed by Charlotte Brontë through Lucy Snowe’s internalisation of patriarchal ideology. By accepting the theory of a division between ‘Spirit and Substance’[3] Lucy is indoctrinated to perceive them as ‘divorced mates…[which] were hard to re-unite: they greeted each other, not in an embrace, but a racking sort of struggle.’[4] Lucy has therefore internalised the separation between mind and body that was established to promote values of masculine rationality over feminine, bodily drives.

Such internalisation, however, while suppressing hysterical expression and ostensibly leaving masculine society undisturbed, merely contains rather than removes the hysterical threat. When confronted with emotional stress Lucy Snowe separates her ‘masculine’ rational faculties from her ‘female’ emotional chora:

Feeling and I turned Reason out of doors, drew against her bar and bolt…Reason would leap in, vigorous and revengeful.[5]

However, such a division results in only a temporary controlling of ‘Feeling’ as Lucy’s emotional angst still remains beneath her ostensibly calm exterior, becoming vicariously expressed. Her wish that Polly ‘would utter some hysterical cry, so that [she] might get relief and be at ease’[6] is granted when Polly does drop ‘on her knees at a chair with a cry’[7] and Lucy is suffused with calm. Such relief, however, is only temporary, and while Lucy exhibits no hysterical behaviour and therefore poses no threat to the fabric of masculine society, the transgressive potential remains.

While such a mind/ body division allows Lucy Snowe to resist hysterical expression and thus pose no challenge to the masculine order, the psychosomatic nature of hysteria destabilises the Cartesian binary that attempts to control it:

[t]he body of a woman …is a “hysterical” body, in the sense that there is, so to speak, no distance between the psychic life and its physiological realization[8].

Through reintegrating the mind and body into a single ontological, psychosomatic verity, hysteria undermines the masculine Cartesian project that provided a justification for the subjugation of women. Rather than utilising the symbolic, verbal, masculine language of reason, hysteria instead expresses itself via the pre-symbolic chora of the body to articulate female experience within patriarchal society. This is exemplified in Bronfen’s description of Bertha Mason:

[her] preternatural laugh, her eccentric murmurs, her threatening “snarling, snatching sound”, in fact recall Kristeva’s concept of the “semiotic chora”. For her husband she is all that lies below acceptable femininity, the feminine body as dangerous Other to man[9].

Despite destabilising the founding binary of the masculine order through its psychosomatic symptoms, hysteria was inadvertently encouraged by the patriarchal empiricist focus of medicalisation. While the physician recognised an increasing variety of physical symptoms they were less inclined to accept the veracity of purely mental phenomena owing to the difficulty of their measurement, quantification and authentication. Consequently, this created a culture in which women suffering from mental anxiety were forced to invent or disproportionately emphasise physical symptoms in order for their distress to be acknowledged. This is portrayed in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice wherein Mrs Bennet calls attention to the physical aspects of her emotional discomfort in order for her turmoil to be validated:

“I am frightened out of my wits; and have such tremblings, such flutterings, all over me, such spasms in my side, and pains in my head, and such beatings at heart, that I can get no rest by night nor by day.”[10]

Such intertwining of the mental and physical was a source of concern for the patriarchal order, as is depicted in contemporary newspaper articles, one reader of the Times noting:

the “tendency of women to morally warp when nervously ill,” and of the terrible physical havoc which the pangs of a disappointed love may work[11].Therefore, while hysterics were encouraged to express their ontological angst in the form of physical symptoms, the hegemonic order was increasingly preoccupied with hysteria’s destabilisation of the empiricist, medical organisation through the transformation of the purely physical into the psychosomatic.

However, the destabilisation of the mind/body binary also impacts upon the hysteric as rather than externally expelling drives using masculine signifying discourse, psychological states are expressed through the medium of the body. As Kristeva noted, language is a defensive construction which provides a means of channelling urges, in particular the death drive, outwith the body:

[language] protects the body from the attack of drives by making it a place…in which the body can signify itself through positions…language, in the service of the death drive, is a pocket of narcissism towards which this drive may be directed[12].

Therefore, hysterical communication that undermines Cartesian dualism by expressing mental affliction through the medium of the body potentially results in self-destructive behaviour:

the daughter who succumbed to hysteria typically turned her rage against herself in a kind of masochistic biting of her own tongue instead of using it aggressively against the other and silently mimed in her body the script that had entrapped her.[13]

As both subject and object, the body of the hysteric becomes the site of signification and is thus damaged by the violent communicative urges that result from coercion.

For patriarchal society the ultimate form of hysterical psychosomatic expression was menstruation and the challenge that it posed to the hegemonic order. The existence of menstruation provided patriarchy with an excuse for increased stricture, which in turn increased female need for transgressive hysterical expression, further undermining masculine control. The self-perpetuating nature of such a cycle is illustrated in Jane Eyre wherein a convulsive, hysterical fit of ‘wild struggling…is aggravated by attempts at restraint’[14]. For Jane, coercion and the threat of being ‘“tied down”’[15] promotes a hysterical reaction and ‘a species of fit’. The pervasive and nightmarish red of the room that is the site of Jane’s first hysterical experience prefigures her explosion of passion when ‘something spoke out of [her] over which [she] had no control.’[16] Since she tells Bessie that she will ‘“never leave Gateshead till [she is] a woman”’[17], Jane’s sudden departure from her aunt’s house shortly after her outburst indicates the commencement of menstruation, supporting Laycock’s argument that the ‘first appearance of this secretion is almost always accompanied by symptoms of hysteria”’[18]. Like insanity, menstruation ‘was seen as a physiological marker of social disruption’[19] and since it existed beyond masculine control was linked with both the chora and hysteria, characterised as an ‘[i]nner excess and uncontrollable flow [which] gives rise to outward symptoms of disorder’[20].

This association of hysteria with menstruation and the female reproductive system is additionally represented in masculine attitudes to pregnancy and childbirth and their potential destabilisation of the Cartesian binary. According to Fielding Blandford:

[w]omen become insane during pregnancy, after parturition, during lactation; at the age when the catamenia [menses] first appear and when they disappear….The sympathetic connection existing between the brain and the uterus is plainly seen by the most causal observer.[21]

The admission of a connection between the physical process of childbirth and the nebulous mental phenomena of hysteria, in particular during ‘the six week puerperal period [that] marked the time within which insanity of child-birth could develop’[22] created further dissonance within the founding myth of the hegemonic order. As the protagonist of Lady Audley’s Secret states, she suffered from puerperal mania after ‘“[her] baby was born, and the crisis which had been fatal to [her] mother arose for [her].”’[23] While the novel hints at hereditary, organic origins for the condition, the confusion of precepts which were caused by the psychosomatic nature of hysteria is illustrated by the fact that ‘[p]uerperal insanity was broadly depicted as a category of moral, usually temporary, insanity’[24] and hence partially a mental phenomena rather than a purely physical form of pathology.

The psychosomatic nature of puerperal insanity also weakened other patriarchal principles, undermining theories of the inherent qualities of motherhood, domesticity and the urge to nurture. Since women were masculinity’s Other, destabilisation of femininity against which the patriarchal order defined itself accordingly undermined the certainty of hegemonic form. Therefore, ‘[c]ases of puerperal insanity seemed to violate all of Victorian culture’s most deeply cherished ideals of feminine propriety and maternal love…[and] their deviance covered a wide spectrum from eccentricity to infanticide.’[25] By associating infanticide with various forms of hysterical, post-natal mania, the hegemonic order created a culture in which it was believed that during the throws of hysteria ‘the mother became “forgetful of her child”, or expressed murderous intent toward the infant’[26].

This perceived connection between infanticide and puerperal hysteria is explored in Eliot’s Adam Bede wherein Hetty Sorrel is imprisoned ‘“[f]or a great crime – the murder of her child”’[27], claiming that she ‘“seemed to hate it – it was like a heavy weight hanging round [her] neck”’[28]. Bram Stoker’s Dracula also portrays infanticide in a reversed maternal image wherein rather than an infant feeding from its mother’s breast milk, Jonathon Harker hears ‘a gasp and a low wail, as of a half-smothered child’[29] as female vampires consume an infant’s blood. Therefore, contrary to the nurturing female body of Victorian ideology the hysteric is non-productive, devouring blood instead of producing milk. The vampires are the anti-mothers of patriarchal propaganda, consuming baby’s blood in order to feed themselves rather than supplying milk to nourish the child as the living dead feed on the newly born.

Therefore, this connection between puerperal mania and inverted motherhood provided the hegemonic order with a means of projecting hysteria upon its Other. As Sally Shuttleworth notes, during the Victorian era:

theories of mental degeneration and inherited brain disease came to the fore. In the post-Darwinian period, Henry Maudsley and others emphasised the inherited qualities of brain disease.[30]

Accordingly, responsibility for the hereditary transmission and existence of hysteria was displaced onto transgressive women. As it was believed that ‘insanity descends more often from the mother than the father, and from the mother to the daughters more often than to the sons’[31], rather than being the product of a failure in medical intelligibility hysteria was instead blamed upon female frailty.

The hereditable character of hysteria is portrayed by the eponymous protagonist of Lady Audley’s Secret who states that ‘“the only inheritance I had to expect from my mother was–insanity!”’[32]. However, through its depiction of Lady Audley the novel also reveals the fundamentally unscientific nature of contemporary views concerning hysterical heredity. For the protagonist, her mother’s hysteria provides both an excuse and a justification for socially transgressive, homicidal behaviour:

“[t]he hereditary taint…was in my blood…at this time I became subject to fits of violence and despair. At this time I think my mind first lost its balance, and for the first time I crossed that invisible line which separates reason from madness.”[33]

The novel therefore fails to indicate whether Lady Audley becomes hysterical because of a heredity over which she has no control, or that she makes little attempt to control her actions since masculine assumptions of hysterical inheritance provide an excuse for her behaviour. There is therefore an inherent subtext to Lady Audley’s hysterical communication with which the prejudiced hegemonic order is unable to engage. Similarly, Bertha Mason Rochester also supposedly suffers from the taint of hereditary insanity:

“[m]y bride’s mother I had never seen: I understood she was dead. The honey-moon over, I learned my mistake; she was only mad, and shut up in a lunatic asylum.”[34]

Mr Rochester’s altered behaviour towards his bride is owing to this revelation. It is only after the marriage that ‘“the doctors now discovered that [his] wife was mad – her excesses had prematurely developed the germs of insanity”’[35]. As is the case with Lady Audley, the prophecy becomes self-fulfilling and any other possible meaning that could be conveyed by hysterical communication is accordingly ignored. For the masculine order such self-perpetuation served to maintain the prejudice that underlay the assumptions of such theorists as Henry Maudsley. The fact that a correlation between hysteria and heredity could not prove direction or cause, or disprove the existence of wider social factors, was therefore disregard.

Accordingly, while the masculine order was aware of hysteria, there was no attempt to understand its meaning and hysterical language was interpreted in a manner that ensured maintenance of patriarchal dominance. By promoting a gendered Cartesian binary and diagnosing hysteria as a hereditary transmission, the hegemonic order attempted to control the condition and use its existence to justify masculine superiority and the need for medicalisation. However, due to the amorphous nature of hysteria and the psychosomatic quality of its symptoms, the condition undermined the masculine precepts of control. In doing so, hysteria not only challenged the fundamental binary of gender itself but also questioned the conceptions of inherent masculinity, femininity and the entire epistemological project of Victorian society.


Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

[1] S. de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, ed. by H.M. Parshley (London: Pan Books, 1988), p.630

[2] J. Kristeva, ‘Revolution in Poetic Language’, in T. Moi, ed., The Kristeva Reader: Julia Kristeva (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p.113

[3] C. Brontë, Villette (London: Penguin Books, 2004), chapter 16

[4] ibid, chapter 16

[5] ibid, chapter 23

[6] ibid, chapter 2

[7] Brontë, Villette, chapter 3

[8] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p.356

[9] E. Bronfen, Over her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), p.221

[10] J. Austen, Pride and Prejudice in, The Complete Novels of Jane Austen (London: The Penguin Group, 1996), chapter 47

[11] Letter on Militant Hysteria – The Times, March 28, 1912 in, Sir A.E. Wright, The Unexpurgated Case Against Women Suffrage (London: Constable and Company, 1913), appendix, p.77

[12] Kristeva, ‘Revolution in Poetic Language’, p.103

[13] C. Kahane, Hysteria, Narrative, and the Figure of the Speaking Woman 1850-1915 (London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1995), p.37

[14] F.M.R. Walshe, Diseases of the Nervous System, 2nd edn (Edinburgh: E. & S. Livingstone, 1941), p.106

[15] C. Brontë, Jane Eyre (London: Penguin Books, 1996), I, chapter 2

[16] ibid, I, chapter 4

[17] ibid, I, chapter 3

[18] T. Laycock, An Essay on Hysteria, (Philadelphia: Haswell Barrrington Haswell, 1840), p.69 in, S. Shuttleworth, Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p.78

[19] ibid, p78

[20] ibid, p.78

[21] G. Fielding Blandford, Insanity and its Treatment (Philadelphia: Henry C. Lea, 1871), p.69 in, E. Showalter, The Female Malady (London: Virago Press, 2004), pp.56-7

[22] H. Morland, ‘At Home with Puerperal Mania: the Domestic Treatment of the Insanity of Childbirth in the Nineteenth Century’ in, P. Bartlett and D. Wright, eds, Outside the Walls of the Asylum: The History of Care In the Community 1750-2000 (London: The Athlone Press, 1999), p.50

[23] M.E. Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), III, chapter 3

[24] I. Loudon, ‘Puerperal Insanity in the Nineteenth Century’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 81 (1988), pp.76-9 in, H. Morland, ‘At Home with Puerperal Mania: the Domestic Treatment of the Insanity of Childbirth in the Nineteenth Century’ in, P. Bartlett and D. Wright, eds, Outside the Walls of the Asylum: The History of Care In the Community 1750-2000 (London: The Athlone Press, 1999), p.48

[25] E. Showalter, The Female Malady (London: Virago Press, 2004), p.58

[26] Morland, ‘At Home with Puerperal Mania’, p.48

[27] G. Eliot, Adam Bede (London: The Penguin Group, 1985), chapter 39

[28] ibid, chapter 45

[29] B. Stoker, Dracula (London: Penguin Books, 1994), p.53

[30] Shuttleworth, Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology, pp.34-5

[31] H. Maudsley, The Physiology and Pathology of the Mind (London: Macmillan, 1867), p.216

[32] Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, II, chapter 3

[33] ibid, II, chapter 3

[34] Brontë, Jane Eyre, III, chapter 1

[35] ibid, III, chapter 1


2 Responses to “Hysteria in the Victorian Novel”

  1. James Hughes August 17, 2011 at 10:22 pm #

    Absolutely brilliant article. Some of the most intelligent writing I have seen online all year.

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