The Patriarchal Reception of Hysteria

17 Aug

In 1853, physician Robert Carter admonished his fellow doctors

“[i]f a patient ….interrupts the speaker, she must be told to keep silence and to listen; and must be told, moreover…in such a manner as to convey the speaker’s full conviction that the command will be immediately obeyed.”[1]

Nineteenth century psychiatrists rejected any linguistic discourse that they considered to be nonsensical, particularly if the speech was female and therefore more prone to irrationality. Consequently, rather than the physician utilising dialogue to discover what the patient’s hysteria attempted to convey, it was instead used as a form of regulation and coercion. This reflected contemporary ideologies of female silence and submission and psychiatric authorities denied the hysteric’s subjectivity by translating their discourse into masculine language. This accordingly ‘silenced the female patient…mak[ing] her the object of techniques of moral management, or of photographic representation and interpretation’[2] However, subjecting a medical, supposedly organic condition to moral instruction destabilised the division between science and ontology, creating an inevitable value-conflict. This in turn threatened the medical establishment’s claim to authority derived from scientific evidence.

For women during the Victorian era the silence that was enforced within the domestic sphere prevented the vocal expression of emotion and resulted in a sense of suffocation. Therefore, one of the primary symptoms of hysteria was the sensation of ‘choking from a ball rising in the throat’[3] as if the ability to speak was being strangled. This was initially observed in the first century AD by Aretaeus who contended that:

the uterus is liable to be suddenly carried upward within the abdominal cavity. Violently compressing the vital organs, it gives rise to “hysterical suffocation”- a choking sensation leading to a fainting fit.[4]

This was later diagnosed by Edward Jorden as Suffocation of the Mother, owing to its association with strangulation and choking which rendered the sufferer ‘[i]n priuation of voice and fpeech[5]. Suffocation of the Mother is exemplified by Braddon’s Lady Audley whose words when she attempted to speak ‘died away inarticulately upon her trembling lips’[6], a ‘choking sensation in her throat seem[ing] to strangle those false and plausible words’[7].

While the masculine order attempted to attribute the phenomenon of Suffocation of the Mother to the strangulating maternal bond, contemporary literature places the blame upon patriarchy itself. Lady Audley’s fear of mental suffocation and of ‘hands clutching at the black ribbon about her throat, as if it had been strangling her’[8] following Sir Michaels’ proposal accompanies the expectation of her identity and independence being subsumed within that of her prospective husband. While Lady Audley experiences suffocation when she awakes screaming in terror from ‘“a dream in which [she] had felt [her] mother’s icy grasp upon [her] throat”’[9] it is the prospect of hereditary hysteria rather than the maternal bond that seems to cause her panic. In Stoker’s Dracula patriarchal responsibility for female suffocation is rendered more explicit through the violent metaphor of vampirism. Constraining and wounding of the throat is a prevalent image throughout the novel, most striking when the masculine figure of Count Dracula feeds from the blood of Lucy Westenra. Contrastingly, the hysterical woman occupies the opposite position, being herself ‘“a vampire who sucks the blood of the healthy people [, the medical practioners,] around her”’[10]. This occurs within Stoker’s text when Lucy Westenra requires repeated transfusions, causing the male donors to experience their ‘own life blood drawn away into the veins of the woman’[11].

While the masculine order may remove the possibility of meaningful feminine speech it cannot expel, only repress, transgressive female emotion that is instead psychosomatically released via hysteria. In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility upon receiving Willoughby’s letter Marianne Dashwood ‘almost screamed with agony’[12], yet the social prohibitions against female vocalisation and the pressure of public conformity force her to resist articulation. Marianne is conditioned to conceal her passion whose expression would challenge both patriarchal power and contemporary gender conceptions of feminine passivity and masculine agency. However, in spite of such repression the transgressive emotion remains:

[t]he more her protestations of grief must be concealed and contained by an enforced Silence of public propriety and passivity, the more eloquently violent does that Silence become.[13]

Instead of utilising vocal expression, Marianne articulates through the transgressive ‘violence’ of hysteria during which she ‘raves incoherently’[14] and in doing so discovers a form of release that she had previously been denied.

Such psychosomatic communication compelled the hegemonic order ‘to decipher its signs’[15] in an attempt to convert non-verbal communication into a patriarchally intelligible form. By the nineteenth century responsibility for such interpretation had become the province of the medical establishment since ‘[h]ysteria need[ed] a doctor or theorist, an authority figure who can give it a compelling name and narrative’[16]. Therefore, by diagnosing the hysteric according to medical discourse, her incomprehensible behaviour was translated into the language of the masculine domain. As patriarch of the Brontë household, Reverend Patrick was preoccupied:

with the threat of nervous disease and insanity. Mind and body were subject to minute scrutiny and medical intervention. Patrick threw his whole weight of patriarchal endorsement behind the authority of the medical world.[17]

While her father translated physical female behaviour into masculine written language, Charlotte Brontë created characters that acted to the contrary. The masculine language with which Catherine Earnshaw carves her name into the window ledge becomes a hysterical manifestation when the ‘white letters’[18] assume a physical form ‘start[ing] from the dark, as vivid as spectres’[19]. In spite of masculine control and regulation, female communication assumes the form of psychosomatic, hysterical expression that resists fixed interpretation.

In order to control the fluid, amorphous quality of hysteria and its disordered expression, psychiatrists such as Jean-Martin Charcot attempted to isolate it ‘as a pure nosological object[20] using the rigid rules of masculine, symbolic language. In his clinic in the Paris hospital La Salpêtrière that Victor Hugo describes as ‘part woman’s prison and part mad-house’[21], Charcot endeavoured to render hysteria coherent to male thought. By organising and identifying each hysterical symptom Charcot composed a list of distinct ‘grammatical components’ analogous to those forming the sentences of masculine language. Thus a catalogue, a microcosmic reflection of the entire medical, epistemological project, was compiled which interpreted physical symptoms according to masculine perception. This tableau categorised:

secretions of all kinds, saliva, drool, foam, sweat, “milky secretions,” tears, and urine, “blood sweats”: and finally what was called “vaginal or uterine hypersecretion”[22].

Similarly, Le Brun interpreted female bodily language according to a phallocentric perspective by translating hysterical behaviour into an alphabet, ‘count[ing] them only up to twenty-four’[23], ‘perhaps terrified of this in fact transfinite mathematics, the mathematics of symptoms that he had lighted upon.’[24]

However, with the advent of psychoanalytic discourse, a fundamental problem with such a taxonomical approach became apparent as, owing to the mimetic propensity of nervous disorders, ‘identical signs in two different bodies do not have the same meaning’[25]. Thus, owing to its ‘flowing, fluctuating …[b]lurring[26] multiplicity of meanings that varied according to the individual, hysterical discourse resisted categorisation. Such resistance posed a problem since medical authorities only accepted communication that could be ordered according to symbolic masculine language. However, by endeavouring to universalise the individuality of hysterical discourse the subjective meaning became lost. Thus psychosomatic hysterical communication continued to defy medical intelligibility since it could not be categorised within the terms of the dominant discourse.

Owing to the impossibility of containing hysteria within masculine language, physicians attempted to limit the possible range of psychosomatic behaviour by placing the body to complete rest. While the rest cure developed by S. Weir Mitchell in 1872 was originally intended to treat soldiers suffering from battle fatigue[27], it was latterly applied to hysterics to prevent psychosomatic communication, consisting of ‘complete rest, seclusion, and excessive feeding’[28]. Under the rest cure ‘the Victorian woman regressed physically and emotionally…she was put to bed and taught complete submission, even her arms and legs were moved for her’[29]. This is exemplified by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper of which Ann Lane writes:

[the r]igidly enforced confinement and absolute passivity…contributed strongly to the madness in her short story, [that] needed to be discarded, as Gilman herself had discarded them, if women were to achieve sanity and strength.[30]

Gilman explores the potential consequence of denying women their own language as during the rest cure they are told ‘how to express her thoughts’[31] and her protagonist is ‘absolutely forbidden to “work” until [she is] well again’[32], thus prohibited from expressing her mental affliction even through the medium of masculine written discourse. Gilman’s narrator states that her husband has diagnosed her condition as ‘only nervousness’[33] as she laments the fact that he ‘does not know how much [she] really suffer[s]’ [34]. Owing to the strict regime of the rest cure the narrator is unable to convey the true nature of her suffering:

he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do? If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do?[35]

Rather than allowing the narrator agency over her own physical movement, the rest cure grants expressive control of her body to her husband who, as both her spouse and physician, is doubly her patriarch.

However, as Gilman’s narrative portrays, it is only the outward expression of hysteria that is contained while the emotional frustration increases during confinement. Following her hysterical fit in the red-room, Jane Eyre is compelled to rest and is fed treats by Bessie who tempts her with ‘a tart on a certain brightly painted china plate’[36]. Yet Jane rejects the rest cure claiming that she ‘could not eat the tart’[37], her hysteria instead increasing to assume the form of vocal protest when she verbally attacks Mrs Reed. Since during the period of immobility the hysteric is denied any opportunity for psychosomatic expression of mental affliction, once permission is finally granted movement results in an increasingly intense hysterical outburst.

The failure both of cataloguing and restricting mobility indicated that another approach was required, thus, between 1895 and 1900 Sigmund Freud attempted to limit hysteria’s transgressive potential by means of psychoanalysis. Through utilising the medium of narrative rather than quantification the psychoanalyst was able to contain hysteria within patriarchal symbols and archetypes. Freud defined the condition as a ‘somatic representation of a repressed bisexual conflict’[38] that led to hysterical behaviour when the masculine and feminine competed for dominance within the individual, expounding his theory using myths and symbols. However, while psychoanalysis encompassed hysteria within masculine discourse the subjective nature of the technique emphasised the problem of deducing ‘internal’ states from ‘external’ behaviours. Since the medical establishment derived its authority from contemporary scientific discourse, the subjective nature of psychoanalysis and its quasi-mystical use of mythology consequently destabilised this epistemological basis.

Therefore, in spite of the various attempts at containment and re-inscription deployed by the medical establishment to limit hysterical communication, the condition resisted masculine restraint. Since patriarchy refused to validate or explore hysteria as a form of ontological, psychosomatic communication, it remained a permanent challenge to the Victorian medical project. Owing to its fluid and idiosyncratic nature hysteria denied both patriarchy’s claim to the Cartesian binary and to predict ‘internal’ states from ‘external’ phenomena. Thus:

[t]he diagnosis of moral insanity was not a straightforward affair of decoding outer signs, but rested crucially on the observers interpretation and assessment of the relationship between outward behaviour and inner motivation.[39]

Rather than resting upon the ‘certainties’ of epistemological data, conceptions of hysteria were merely nominal. Women accordingly became trapped within psychological discourse, which, as Irigaray states, reveals only the truth of masculine power and women’s position within such a model:

[p]sychoanalytic discourse on female sexuality is the discourse of truth. A discourse that tells the truth about the logic of truth: namely that the feminine occurs only within models and laws devised by male subjects[40].

Therefore, while the physician provided women with an unconscious, it is the unconscious of the patriarchal power structure: as Christine Von Braun states, the physicians ‘came to project their historically specific imaginations of what the feminine body should be onto their patients.’[41] The hysteric was thus devised by the psychiatrist as a physical body rather than a thinking being. Consequently, woman remained unknowable as, rather than endeavouring to understand her, the physician and psychoanalyst instead inscribed their own discourse upon her, and in doing so undermined the certainty of the patriarchal medical establishment.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

[1] R.B. Carter, Pathology and Treatment of Hysteria (London: John Churchill, 1853), p.43 in, E. Showalter, The Female Malady (London: Virago Press, 2004), p.154

[2] E. Showalter, The Female Malady (London: Virago Press, 2004), p.154

[3] A.T. Schofield, A.T., Nerves in Disorder: A Plea for Rational Treatment (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1903), p.96

[4] A.R.G. Owen, Hysteria, Hypnosis and Healing: The Work of J.-M. Charcot (New York: Garrett Publications, 1971), p.58

[5] E. Jorden, ‘A Briefe Discourse of a Disease called the Suffocation of the Moether’, in M. MacDonald, ed., Witchcraft and Hysteria in Elizabethan London: Edward Jorden and the Mary Glover Case (London: Routledge, 1991), p.16

[6] M.E. Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), I, chapter 12

[7] ibid, I, chapter 12

[8] Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, I, chapter 1

[9] ibid, II, chapter 3

[10] S. Weir Mitchell, Fat and Blood: An Essay on the Treatment of Certain Forms of Neurasthenia and Hysteria, 4th edn, (Philadelphia, 1885), p.49 in, C. Gallagher and T. Laqueur, eds., The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century (London: University of California Press, 1987), p.153

[11] B. Stoker, Dracula (London: Penguin Books, 1994), chapter 10

[12] J. Austen, Sense and Sensibility in, The Complete Novels of Jane Austen (London: The Penguin Group, 1996), chapter 29

[13] A. Leighton, ‘Sense and Silences, Reading Jane Austen Again’, in, J. Todd, ed., Jane Austen: New Perspectives: Women and Literature, 3 vols (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1983), p.135, italics mine

[14] ibid, p.135

[15] S. Shuttleworth, Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p.39

[16] Showalter, Hystories, p.11

[17] Shuttleworth, Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology, p.11

[18] E. Brontë, Wuthering Heights (London: Penguin Books, 1995), I, chapter 3

[19] ibid, I, chapter 3

[20] G. Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière, trans. by A. Hartz (London: The MIT Press, 2004), p.19

[21] V. Hugo, Les Misérables (London: Penguin Books, 1982), p.388

[22] P. Briquet, Traité clinique et thérapeutique de l’hystérie (Paris: Ballière, 1859), pp.479-89, in G. Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière, trans. by A. Hartz (London: The MIT Press, 2004), p.272

[23] G. Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière, trans. by A. Hartz (London: The MIT Press, 2004), p.37

[24] ibid, p.37

[25]Logan, Nerves and Narratives, p.22

[26] L. Irigaray, This Sex which is Not One, trans. by C. Porter (New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), p.152

[27] J. Mitchell, Mad Men and Medusas: Reclaiming Hysteria and the Effects of Sibling Relations on the Human Condition (London: The Penguin Group, 2000), p.247

[28] ibid, p.247

[29] ibid, p.252

[30] A.J. Lane, ed., The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader (London: University Press of Virginia, 1999), p.xxiv

[31] Mitchell, Mad Men and Medusas, p.252

[32] C. P. Gilman, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ in, D.S. Davies, ed., Short Stories from the Nineteenth Century (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 2000), p.193

[33] ibid, p.194

[34] Gilman, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, p.194

[35] Gilman, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, p.193

[36] C. Brontë, Jane Eyre (London: Penguin Books, 1996), I, chapter 3

[37] ibid, I, chapter 3

[38] S. Freud, ‘Hysterical Phantasies and Their Relation to Bisexuality’ in, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, 24 vols, ed. by James Strachey and others (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1959) in, C. Kahane, Hysteria, Narrative, and the Figure of the Speaking Woman 1850-1915 (London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1995), p.xi

[39] Shuttleworth, Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology, p.49

[40] Irigaray, This Sex which is Not One, p.86

[41] C. Von Braun, Nicht loh (Frankfurt am Main: Verlang Neue Kritik, 1985) in, E. Bronfen, The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and its Discontents (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998), p.115 at

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

The History of Hysteria

16 Aug

Hysteria has long resisted classification within patriarchal discourse. As Georges Didi-Huberman states, it is ‘a great paradoxical blow dealt to medical intelligibility’[1], appearing to have no singular physiological locus and ‘persistently def[ying] any concept of a seat, any notion of monomania (local madness)’[2]. The qualitative instability of the condition is described in George Cheyne’s The English Malady in which he writes that ‘the disease maintains its unity only in an abstract manner’[3]. Therefore, without an established pathology hysteria is susceptible to interpretation. It has been described as:

“a manifestation of everything from divine poetic inspiration and satanic possession to female unreason, radical degeneration and unconscious psychosexual conflict…a physical disease, a mental disorder, a spiritual malady, a behavioural maladjustment, a sociological communication, and as no illness at all”.[4]

Delimiting the prejudices which inform hysteria’s construction within a particular historical context reveals an underlying tendency in patriarchal representations of the condition. Despite historical variation, interpretations of hysteria persistently return to a hegemonic obsession with what is lacking in male physiology, the womb. This unknown, alien space became characterised as a site of dangerous yet fascinating energies which remained permanently beyond masculine understanding. Fearing what they lacked, patriarchal society utilised medicalisation to control the unknown womb that ‘retained a secret in its possession’[5]. Through its association with the womb, hysterical behaviour was gendered explicitly female and was constructed as an ontological expression of the feminine subject.

The perpetual masculine interest with connotations of hysteria and the womb is verified by the Oxford English Dictionary which states that the word originated from the Greek ‘-, meaning belonging to the womb’[6]. Hysteria was first recorded in ‘two Egyptian medical papyri dating from about 1900 and 1500 B.C.’[7] yet in spite of this earlier reference it is the Greek medical authority Hippocrates who is credited with theorising that the condition arose from the uterus. Since in ‘Hippocratic gynaecology all diseases are hysterical because the uterus is regarded as the source of all women’s diseases’[8], hysteria was perceived as an inherent component of female existence.

By defining the female sex according to their capacity for reproduction, the hegemonic order reduced a woman from the status of subject to a wandering womb, ‘“a living creature within them with a desire for child-bearing”’[9]. This created the possibility that in the absence of conception, the womb would become ‘“vexed and aggrieved”’[10] and would consequently begin ‘“wandering throughout the body and blocking the channels of the breath, [and] by forbidding respiration [bring] the sufferer to extreme distress”’[11]. The amorphous quality of the condition meant that any ‘“disease of an unknown nature and hidden origin [which] appears in a woman in such a manner that its cause escapes us…[is] blame[d on] the mad influence of the uterus”’[12].

The establishment of this medical precedent reinforced the hysterical woman’s social status as being analogous to the position of her wandering womb, which had no definitive situation within the body. Deviation from the established mores was therefore dismissed as the hysterical product of reproductive deficiency. Even Greek theorists such as Plato, who rejected the notion of the womb’s motility, associated the condition with uterine incapacity, being ‘a moving psychological force which arises from the womb: sexual desire perverted by frustration.’[13]

In accordance with Plato, Christianity posited sexual deviation as central to the theory of hysteria. It was conceived that:

a supernatural manifestation of evil and an externalised and personalised agency, the demon[,] took the place of the womb in wandering about the female body[14].

According to this conjecture, responsibility for hysterical behaviour was attributed to the masculine devil, rather than to the female Other. The condition which was previously beyond the limits of the masculine order became integrated within contemporary patriarchal myths of a paternal figure and His masculine adversary. Consistent with contemporary theory:

mental illness became coterminous with spirit possession – the devil tricking humans by taking over the imagination rather than the body – and hysteria came to be understood as the illness par excellence of the soul.[15]

However, with the growing preference for the scientific rather than the mystical, theoretical speculation was increasingly rooted in physiological causes. During the seventeenth century Edward Jordan suggested that vapours arising from a disturbed uterus produced symptoms resulting from ‘the brain’s sympathetic involvement with the disturbed womb’[16]. This resulted ‘in hallucinations, impairment of intelligence, or mental alienation.’[17] By the following century the theory was established to the extent that for refined women:

having the vapours became synonymous with hysteria, so that although the basic source of the vapours was the brain, it was often argued that these emanated secondarily from the womb.[18]

Rather than suffering from demonic possession, the eighteenth century hysteric was the victim of a disordered nervous system, inextricably linked to gynaecological causes. The socio-economic stratification of the period resulted in hysteria being limited ‘to a certain part of the population, those well-born and idle, of delicate nervous constitution’[19], particularly affecting those suffering from sexual and social frustration.

By the nineteenth century, however, conceptions of ‘hysteria and femininity could be called coterminous precisely because both were constructed to represent emotional validity, exquisite sensitivity, emotional exhaustion’[20]. Hysteria became increasingly ambiguous due to changes in the masculine ideology of the female. In the Victorian era ‘the charm of femininity was, when forced to excess, indeed hysteria’[21] and there emerged a newly eroticised, sexual dimension to the hysterical figure, mirroring ambiguities in Victorian moral strictures. To the masculine subject such weakness was desirable in order to validate the male position, whilst also allowing the erotic potential resulting from masculine domination and inequalities of power.

The Victorian period also marked the beginning of a further profound change in the construction of hysteria as it was in this century that ‘[t]he modern medical history of hysterical epidemics beg[an] with Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) and his clinic in the Paris hospital La Salpêtrière’[22]. It was Charcot who stated that hysteria did not result from sexual frustration and was not limited to women. This subversion of over three thousand years of phallocentric discourse was expounded upon by Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer who attributed hysteria to emotional trauma. Rather than being victims of their own wombs or of demonic possession ‘[h]ysterical patients were expressing fantasies based on their unconscious Oedipal desires.’[23] Through Freud’s treatment of female, hysterical patients, he came to define the condition as the ‘unconscious refusal to accept a single and defined subject position in the oedipal structuration of desire and identity’[24]. This resulted in ‘bodily symptoms, two sexual identities – masculine and feminine – which contended with each other for dominance.’[25] According to Freud, hysterics:

displace that site of conflict upward, playing out their sexualised contestation of identity in a more ambiguous register of the body, [and t]hus, hysteria is frequently marked by disturbances of voice, vision, hearing, and even breathing…[as h]ysteria records a conflict…a confusion between body and language.[26]

The language to which Freud refers is that of subject and object, what Julia Kristeva terms the ‘universal signifying order’[27]. While psychoanalysis has explored hysteria from a linguistic perspective, it has only done so within the confines of masculine discourse and the prevailing medicalised, patriarchal lexicon. Therefore, while the hegemonic order accepts the existence of a hysterical language rooted in the body, it is only willing to do so according to a limited interpretation which remains within patriarchal control, the province of the medical establishment. Hysterical language is thus perceived as physiological and psychological, expressing conflicts within the patriarchal order such as Oedipal or Electral urges, rather than as an attempt to communicate a fundamental aspect of female existence.

Consequently, while ‘throughout history, hysteria has served as a form of expression, a body language for people who otherwise might not be able to speak or even to admit what they feel’[28], psychoanalysis has attempted to co-opt such individual expression and reintegrate it within prevailing myths and structures of patriarchal discourse. However, if hysteria is a form of bodily communication it is not the product of the symbolic order but a language associated with the Kristevean chora. As such, hysteria is entrenched in bodily urges that civilised society attempts to constrain. While psychoanalysis may create a narrative in order to delimit hysteria, the chora’s amorphous nature places it beyond the symbolic order where it can never be truly contained. Thus, contrary to traditional belief, hysteria is not a failure to communicate, nor is it an expression of patriarchally conceived psychological phenomena. Instead it is an alternate, transgressive form of communication that attempts to convey ontological traits of female existence. The hegemonic order is both unable and unwilling to acknowledge such a form of expression. As will be discussed, by utilising the body as a site for communication, hysterical women became both subject and object. Accordingly, this undermined the Sartrian foundation of masculine/signifier, feminine/signified upon which the concept of the masculine subject is based.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

[1] G. Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière, trans. by A. Hartz (London: The MIT Press, 2004), p.71

[2] ibid, p.74

[3] M. Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. by Richard Howard (London: Routledge, 1997), p.141

[4] E. Bronfen, The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and its Discontents (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998), in M.S. Micale, Approaching Hysteria: Disease and its Interpretations (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995), p.103

[5] Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria, p.74

[7] C. Mazzoni, Saint Hysteria: Neurosis, Mysticism and Gender in European Culture (London: Cornell University Press, 1996), p.7

[8] ibid, p.7

[9] F.M. Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology, (New York, 1937), p.357 in, M.J. Adair, ‘Plato’s view of the “Wandering Uterus”’, in The Classical Journal, 91.2 (1995), pp.153-63 <> [accessed 11th May 2007]

[10] ibid, p.357

[11] ibid, p.357

[12] T. Willis, Opera Omnia (Lyons, 1681), II, p.242 in, M. Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. by R. Howard (London: Routledge, 1997), pp.137-8

[13] Adair, ‘Plato’s view of the “Wandering Uterus”’, p.357

[14] Mazzoni, Saint Hysteria, p.8

[15] Bronfen, The Knotted Subject, p.106

[16] ibid, p.108

[17] Bronfen, The Knotted Subject, p.108

[18] J. Mitchell, Mad Men and Medusas: Reclaiming Hysteria and the Effects of Sibling Relations on the Human Condition (London: The Penguin Group, 2000), p.11

[19] Bronfen, The Knotted Subject, p.111

[20] ibid, p.115

[21] Mitchell, Mad Men and Medusas, p.12

[22] E. Showalter, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (London, Picador, 1997), p.30

[23] ibid, p.40

[24] S. Freud, ‘Hysterical Phantasies and Their Relation to Bisexuality’ in, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, 24 vols, trans. by James Strachey and others (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1959) in, C. Kahane, Hysteria, Narrative, and the Figure of the Speaking Woman 1850-1915 (London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1995), p.xi

[25] ibid, p.xi

[26] ibid, p.xi

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

[28] Showalter, Hystories, p.7

Charlotte Brontë’s Strange Little Figures

16 Aug

The heroines conceived by Charlotte Brontë’s are slender and, owing to their successful regulation of bodily appetite, embody contemporary ideals of the female form.[1] Elizabeth Gaskell describes Charlotte Brontë herself in 1831 as:

very small in figure – “stunted” was the word she applied to herself, – but as her limbs and head were in just proportion to the slight, fragile body, no word in ever so slight a degree suggestive of deformity could properly be applied to her[2].

Like Charlotte, Jane Eyre is slight, and in the red-room looking-glass perceives herself as a ‘strange little figure…like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp’[3]. Caroline Helstone is also described as having ‘an apparently slender figure’[4] being ‘girlish, light, and pliant’[5], while Polly Home is a ‘small, delicate creature’[6] with ‘pale, small features…[and] fairy symmetry’[7]. Yet, despite being ‘exceedingly tiny’[8], Polly urges her father to put her down as she ‘“shall tire [him] with [her] weight.”’[9] Brontë states of the slender Polly that ‘the mighty burden slid to the rug’[10], reflecting Polly’s concern that she should inconvenience her father. Polly therefore maintains her fairy-like weight in order to be as small and as little trouble as possible so that her father will allow her to accompany him when travelling. Yet, ironically, it is because Polly is ‘“little and tender”’[11] that her father insists that she must stay with Mrs Bretton. At seventeen years old, Paulina still resembles a ‘mere doll’[12] as when Graham lifts her he remarks that ‘“[s]he is very light…like a child!”’[13]

However, while in some circumstances starvation may provide women with a means of self-control, it can only do so as long as starvation remains volitional. If control is lost or surrendered, the consumption of food instead becomes a tool of masculine domination. Rather than voluptuous, sexually aggressive women who threaten masculine agency, men advocate an ideal of female slenderness and ethereality. Brontë’s frail characters are perceived to be more desirable as, posing little physical challenge, they are easily brought within the domain of patriarchal control, wherein they can become domesticated and sexually dominated. Brontë’s male characters therefore desire women who are slim, child-like and vulnerable. Accordingly, Mr Rochester rejects the big and buxom Blanche Ingram. Instead, it is Jane, ‘“a beauty just after the desire of [his] heart, – delicate and aerial”’[14] whom he selects, causing Adèle to worry that Jane ‘“will have nothing to eat”’[15] and that Mr Rochester ‘“will starve her”’[16] in order to keep his ‘“pale, little elf”’[17] with ‘“fairy-like fingers”’[18]. Yet Rochester assures Adèle that he ‘“shall gather manna for [Jane] morning and night”’[19]. This God-given nourishment will thus provide her with divine sustenance, one befitting a spiritual, elf-like creature such as Jane. This indicates that, like the food that he offers, his love is divine, free from sin and sexual guilt.[20]

Similarly, in The Professor, Crimsworth rejects the plump Mademoiselle Reuter ‘a little and roundly formed woman’[21] who at the end of the novel ‘weighs twelve stones’[22] for the slim Frances Henri whose slight ‘figure might have suited seventeen’[23]. In comparison with the Belgian pupils, Frances is ‘less gifted with fullness of flesh and plenitude of blood’[24]. Likewise, in Villette Dr Bretton and M. Paul reject the image of the voluptuous female, Graham stating that ‘“le voluptueux” is little to [his] liking’[25] and Paul also conveying his dislike for the ‘huge, dark-complexioned gipsy-queen’[26] Cleopatra:

“[c]ela ne vaut rien…Une femme superbe – une taille d’imperatrice, des formes de Junon, mais une personne don’t je ne voudrais ni pour femme, ni pour fille, ni pour sœur. Aussi vous ne jeterez plus un seul coup d’œil de sa côté.”[27]

M. Paul’s preference for thin women is evident in the aversion of his gaze from the fleshy Cleopatra and the avidness with which he watches Lucy’s stage performance after depriving her of food. Imprisoned by M. Paul in a ‘solitary and lofty attic’[28] Lucy states that:

I, who had eaten nothing since breakfast, grew excessively hungry…(I had seen in the vestibule a basketful of small pâtés à la crême, than which nothing in the whole range of cookery seemed to me better). A pâté, or a square of cake, it seemed to me would come very apropos; and as my relish for these dainties increased, it began to appear somewhat hard that I should pass my holiday, fasting and in prison.[29]

Upon her release, Lucy complains ‘“J’ai bien faim”’[30] to which M. Paul responds with quasi force-feeding:

[t]he cook was imperatively ordered to produce food, and I, as imperatively, was commanded to eat…M. Paul superintended my repast, and almost forced upon me more than I could swallow.[31]

M. Paul also asserts that he would compel Lucy to take a dose of bitters, despite her protestation that:

“I never liked bitters; nor do I believe them wholesome. And to whatever is sweet, be it poison or food, you cannot, at least, deny its own delicious quality – sweetness. Better, perhaps, to die quickly a pleasant death, than drag on long a charmless life.”[32]

In reply, M. Paul consuls ‘“you should take your bitter dose duly and daily, if I had the power to administer it; and, as to the well-beloved poison, I would, perhaps, break the very cup which held it.”’[33] Despite his ostensible preference for slender women, M. Paul forces food upon Lucy in order to exercise control over her consumption. Rather than an intrinsic dislike of fat, he instead condemns female volition and self-indulgence, with its potential for sexual assertion.


Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

[1] In contrast to Brontë’s slim heroines, those who oppose them are voluptuous and therefore morally inferior: ‘Mrs Reed was rather a stout woman’ of ‘robust frame, square shouldered and strong-limbed’. Madame Beck is ‘a motherly, dumpy little woman’ she is ‘short and stout’, Dr John calls Madame Beck ‘the little buxom widow’. Blanche Ingram is described by Mr Rochester as ‘”big, brown, and buxom”’.

[2] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.124

[3] Jane Eyre, pp.21-2

[4] Brontë, Shirley, p.65

[5] ibid, p.71

[6] Villette, p.293

[7] ibid, p.150

[8] ibid, p.10

[9] Villette, p.22

[10] ibid, p.22

[11] ibid, p.25

[12]  Villette, p.10

[13] ibid, p.291

[14] Jane Eyre, p.291

[15] ibid, p.299

[16] ibid, p.299

[17] ibid, p.290

[18]Jane Eyre, p.291

[19] ibid, p.299

[20]Rochester assumes the patriarchal role in assuming the role of Moses as he leading both himself and Jane out of slavery. He is released from the slavery marriage to a lunatic and Jane is emancipated from her occupation as a governess which is frequently referred to as slavery in Brontë’s novels.Rochester tells Jane that when they are married ‘“[y]ou will give up your governessing slavery at once”’.

[21] Brontë, The Professor, p.60

[22] ibid, p.212

[23] ibid, p.95

[24] ibid, p.95

[25] Villette, p.230

[26] ibid, p.224

[27] ibid, p.228. ‘“It is of no value…A superb woman – a figure of an empress, the form of Juno [the Roman goddess of marriage and childbirth], but not a woman I would want as a wife, a daughter, or a sister. Also you will not look one more time in her direction.”’

[28] Villette, p.148

[29] ibid, p.150

[30] Villette, p.150

[31] ibid, p.151. The full quotation contains the words ‘[t]o my great joy this food was limited to coffee and cake: I had feared wine and sweets, which I did not like. How he guessed that I should like a petit pâté à la crème I cannot tell; but he went out and procured me one from some quarter. With considerable willingness I ate and drank, keeping the petit pâté till that last, as a bonne bouche.’ Lucy does not like sweet food, even though she states elsewhere that she would rather have a short and sweet life than a long and bitter. She saves the best food until last, therefore inflicting delayed gratification upon herself.

[32] Villette, p.259

[33] Villette, p.259. In contrast, Dr John administers sugared water to Madame Beck’s daughter Fifine, because she will believe that it will assist her recovery:: ‘he called for a glass of eau sucrée, fed her with some teaspoonful of the sweet liquid (Fifine was a frank gourmande; any body could win her heart through her palate)’.

Food and Desire in Charlotte Brontë

16 Aug

In the novels of Charlotte Brontë, over-consumption is associated with excessive sexuality. Voluptuous characters satiate their desires for both food and sex without restraint. When invited to dine with Madame Pelet, Crimsworth interprets her offering of food as an invitation to feast with her and upon her:“[s]urely she’s not going to make love to me…I’ve heard of old Frenchwomen doing odd things in that line; and the goûter! They generally begin such affairs with eating and drinking, I believe.”[1]

Crimsworth gains evidence for his conviction by observing that the supposedly amorous old women ate ‘with no delicate appetite; and having demolished a large portion of the solids, they proposed a petit verre.’ [2] The association of hunger with sexual appetite is further propounded in Villette as the flirtatious Ginevra Fanshawe rejects the school’s ‘salt-fish and hard eggs’[3], preferring to indulge in sweet cuisine:[a]t all ordinary diet and plain beverage she would pout; but she fed on creams and ices like a humming-bird on honey-paste: sweet wine was her element and sweet cake her daily bread.[4]

Like the voluptuous and exhibitionistic Ginevra who ‘was in her element’[5] coquetting ‘between two suitors’[6] during the theatricals, the image of a fleshy Cleopatra that Lucy gazes upon at the gallery is openly displayed as a visual gourmet to be consumed by the onlooker:

[s]he was, indeed, extremely well fed: very much butcher’s meat – to say nothing of bread, vegetables, and liquids – must she have consumed to attain that breadth and height, that wealth of muscle, that affluence of flesh.[7] The meat to which Lucy refers was traditionally associated with sexuality. Elaine Showalter writes that:

[d]isgust with meat was a common phenomenon among Victorian girls; a carnivorous diet was associated with sexual precocity, especially with an abundant menstrual flow, and even with nymphomania.[8]

Therefore, spirited sexual behaviour could be prevented by avoiding meat. Mrs Brontë’s nurse described Maria’s children as ‘“spiritless…[i]n part, I set it down to a fancy Mr Brontë had of not letting them have flesh-meat to eat”’.[9] As a consequence, gluttony and excessive meat consumption are strongly condemned in Brontë’s novels.[10] In The Professor, Hunsden reprimands Crimsworth for dining upon meat: ‘“[c]old meat!…what a glutton you are, man! Meat with tea! You’ll die of eating too much.”’[11]

Since voluptuous women were perceived as capable of devouring men as well as food they were depicted as monstrously unfeminine, even vampiric. In contrast to the ‘“fairy-like”’[12] Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason is ‘a big woman’[13], ‘tall and large’[14] whose ‘“bulk”’[15] Mr Rochester compares with Jane’s ‘“form”’[16]. Such monstrous portrayal is echoed by Jane herself who describes Bertha’s features as ‘“[f]earful and ghastly”’[17], reminiscent ‘“[o]f the foul German spectre – the Vampyre”’[18]. Consequently, Mr Rochester states that the habit of his sexually excessive wife is to attack people and ‘“bite their flesh from their bones”’[19]. Vampire-like, Bertha springs at Mr Rochester, ‘grappled his throat viciously, and laid her teeth to his cheek’[20]. Her lust for blood is insatiable as Mr Mason recounts how during Bertha’s attack she ‘“sucked the blood: she said she’d drain [his] heart”’[21].

This ‘sexual “hunger” that, according to Sandra Gilbert, all the women in this novel…repress’[22] establishes a moral dimension to Brontë’s depiction of food: bodily appetite should be controlled since over-consumption denotes excessive sexuality endangering the soul’s salvation.[23] Accordingly, Brontë conceives corpulent women as morally corrupt, lascivious and even vampiric owing to their desire for physical gratification.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

[1] Brontë, The Professor, p.54

[2] ibid, p.55

[3] Brontë, Villette, p.94

[4] ibid, pp.156-7

[5] Brontë, Villette, p.155

[6] ibid, p.155

[7] ibid, p.223

[8] E. Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (London: Virago Press, 2004), p.129

[9] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.87

[10] Not only is fat is associated with sexuality, it also has connotations with slovenliness. In Villette Cleopatra is surrounded by ‘wretched untidiness’ and ‘an absurd and disorderly mass of curtain upholstery’. Lucy describes the painting in which Cleopatra ‘lay half-reclined on a couch: why, it would be difficult to say; broad daylight blazed round her; she appeared in hearty health, strong enough to do the work of two plain cooks; she could not plead a weak spine; she ought to have been standing, or at least sitting bolt upright. She had no business to lounge away thenoon on a sofa.’

[11] Brontë, The Professor, p.35

[12] Brontë, Jane Eyre, p.291

[13] ibid, p.328

[14] ibid, p.317

[15] ibid, p.329

[16] ibid, p.329

[17] ibid, p.317

[18] ibid, p.317

[19] ibid, p.339

[20] ibid, p.328

[21] ibid, p.239

[22] S. M. Gilbert, ‘Jane Eyre and the Secrets of Furious Lovemaking’, in
Novel: a Forum on Fiction, 31:3 (1998), pp.351-372 <> [accessed5 September 2007]

[23] The disgust for fat even extends to female perceptions of male bodies: Mrs Bretton says of her son ‘“[h]e used to be slender as an eel, and now I fancy in him a sort of heavy-dragoon bent – a beef-eater tendency. Graham, take notice! If you grow fat I disown you.”’

Corpulence and Class in Charlotte Brontë

16 Aug

Charlotte Brontë’s fleshy female characters are often portrayed as requiring discipline and self-control. Corpulence is equated with mental inferiority in Villette as the Belgian pupils are depicted as lacking the requisite discipline for intellectual pursuits. Lucy Snowe describes the dining habits of one of her students whose:

quantity of household bread, butter, and stewed fruit, she would habitually consume at “second dejeuner” was a real world’s wonder – to be exceeded only by the fact of her actually pocketing slices she could not eat.[1]

Likewise, William Crimsworth’s intellectually deficient pupil Eulalie is ‘all curve and roundness’.[2] Despite being fifteen, the ‘broad waist[ed]’[3] Adèle Dronsart is ‘as full grown as a stout young Englishwoman of twenty’.[4] The slenderness of the English female figure in comparison to that of the voluptuous Belgian woman is also observed by Lucy who remarks that:

[t]he Labassecouriennes demonstrate the same lack of discipline over their bodies as they do over their school work…The inherently greater intelligence of the English woman is reflected in her sylph-like body.[5]

Reflecting contemporary socio-economic prejudices Brontë conceives corpulent women as belonging to the uneducated lower classes. According to Krugovoy Silver she ‘equate[d] the slim body with the educated middle class, and the heavy body with the lower classes, thus echoing widely held Victorian beliefs.’[6] Housewives and servants are frequently described as physically large such as the ‘“two buxom lasses in pinafores”’[7] between which Robert Moore finds himself in Shirley and the ‘“red and robust”’[8] milkmaids observed by Caroline Helstone. In addition, Hortense is described as ‘stout’[9] and Mr Moore’s nurse is ‘“as round and big as our largest water-butt – a rough, hard-favoured old girl”’[10] whom Martin believes ‘“eats most of what goes up on the tray to Mr. Moore.”’[11] In Jane Eyre Miss Abbot has ‘a stout leg’[12] and the ‘heavy Welshwoman’[13] Miss Gryce who shares Jane’s room at Lowood exhibits snoring that is indicative of her gluttony and sloth: ‘the heavy supper she had eaten produced a soporific effect: she was already snoring before [Jane] had finished undressing.’[14] At Thornfield, Mr Rochester’s servant, Grace Poole, is described as ‘a set, square made figure’[15] who refuses to dine with the other servants, content with her ‘“pint of porter and a bit of pudding on a tray”’.[16]

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

[1] Brontë, Villette, p.240

[2] Brontë, The Professor, p.65

[3] ibid, p.77

[4] ibid, p.77

[5] Krugovoy Silver, Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body, p.106

[6] ibid, p.22

[7] Brontë, Shirley, p.247

[8] ibid, p.392

[9] ibid, p.59

[10] Brontë, Shirley, p.552

[11] ibid, p.553

[12] Brontë, Jane Eyre, p.19

[13] ibid, p.100

[14] Brontë, Jane Eyre, p.102

[15] ibid, p.123

[16] ibid, p.178

Charlotte Brontë: Spirit and Substance

16 Aug

In The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell writes that on the four mile journey from Keighley to Haworth ‘[t]he soil in the valley…is rich; but, as the road begins to ascend, the vegetation becomes poorer; it does not flourish, it merely exists’[1]. The land that surrounded the Brontës was sparse and produced little vegetation, merely crops of ‘pale, hungry-looking grey-green oats.’[2] At Haworth parsonage the flower-border underneath the windows was so infertile that ‘only the most hardy plants could be made to grow there’[3], while in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley Mr Moore’s garden soil offers ‘scanty brown stalks’[4] near his porch ‘and likewise beneath the windows – stalks budless and flowerless’[5].Charlotte’s physical and mental landscapes were therefore hostile, infertile and unproductive.

The fortunes of the Brontë family reflected the harshness of their environment since hereditary and congenital afflictions suppressed the appetite and caused wasting of the flesh. Charlotte’s mother Maria suffered from delicate health following the birth of her last child, Anne in which ‘[h]er constitution was enfeebled, and her frame wasted daily’[6]. The Brontë children were also fragile and susceptible to disease. Charlotte’s sister Maria is described as ‘delicate and small in appearance’[7], as is Anne who became ‘“very much emaciated…her arms…no thicker than a little child’s”’[8], a description also applicable to Emily who was buried in ‘the narrowest adult coffin the local carpenter had ever made.’ [9]

Such emaciation and physical frailty within the Brontë household were further accentuated through their unconventional attitude towards the family meal, a cornerstone of Victorian domestic life and an embodiment of middle-class affluence and health. However:

[o]wing to some illness of the digestive organs, Mr Brontë was obliged to be very careful about his diet; and, in order to avoid temptation, and possibly to have the quiet necessity for digestion, he had begun, before his wife’s death, to take his dinner alone, – a habit which he always retained.[10]

In Elizabeth Branwell’s later years, she too ‘took most of her meals, in her bed-room.’[11] Eating was therefore antisocial and the procuring and consuming of food was accomplished in secrecy, as portrayed in Jane Eyre. Jane’s procurement of a meal for Adèle and herself from the kitchen during a dinner party at Thornfield is covertly undertaken: ‘issuing from my asylum with precaution, I sought a back-stairs which conducted directly to the kitchen.’[12] After securing ‘a cold chicken, a roll of bread, some tarts, a plate or two and a knife and fork’[13] she ‘made a hasty retreat.’[14] Rather than the wholesome meals of the archetypical middle-class Victorian family, the novels of Charlotte Brontë portray scenes of concealed, shameful eating that are underscored by the constant threat of subdued appetite and emaciation.

Deprived of conventional meal times and the solace and community which they could afford, Charlotte attempted to bestow moral aspects upon her mental and physical capacities. By utilising the Cartesian division of a superior mind and inferior body, Charlotte valorised the intellectually rich but physically deprived household at Howarth parsonage, within which despite the fact that ‘“there was plenty and even waste”’, [15] Mr Brontë ‘“thought that children should be brought up simply and hardily: so they had nothing but potatoes for their dinner.”[16] Such a sentiment is voiced by Villette’s protagonist Lucy Snowe who articulates a distinction between ‘Spirit and Substance’[17], a concept portrayed in Plato’s Phaedo which condemns ‘pleasures concerned with the service of the body’[18], instead claiming that the soul ‘disdains the body, flees from it and seeks to be by itself’[19]. Plato’s pronouncement that death causes ‘the separation of the soul from the body’[20] is echoed in Shirley wherein Brontë depicts the soul’s flight and departure from the physical form. Caroline Helstone asserts that following death, the inferior body merely ‘falls, decays’[21] while the superior soul:

wings its long flight upward, folds its wings on the brink of the sea of fire and glass, and gazing down through the burning clearness, finds the sovereign Father, the mediating Son, the Creator spirit[22].

Bodily inferiority is further propounded in The Professor as William Crimsworth is too concerned with emotional and intellectual affairs to consider such ‘coarse cares as those of eating and drinking’[23].

Mental and spiritual phenomena are thus depicted as more profound sources of sustenance. According to Plato, it is only possible to attain knowledge via the soul’s disassociation from the body since ‘the body confuses the soul and does not allow it to acquire truth and wisdom’[24]. In order to ‘escape the contamination of the body’s folly’[25], Brontë’s heroines ensure that the soul does not become ‘infected with [the body’s] nature’[26]. In Jane Eyre Helen Burns speaks of the human physical form as the residence of sin hindering the spirit: when ‘“corruptible bodies”’[27] are discarded ‘“debasement and sin will fall from us with this cumbrous frame of flesh, and only the spark of the spirit will remain”’[28].

Within such a conception bodily affliction is a means of achieving divine fulfilment. The promise of heavenly comfort following a life of physical suffering was advocated by Charlotte’s mother who said that ‘[i]f the children of the poor were famished and cold…[they must] turn the mind to the world to come’[29]. Mr Brocklehurst expounds upon this in asserting that he must ‘“punish [Jane’s] body to save her soul”’[30], thereby promoting physical suffering in order to turn the mind to heaven[31]. He thus reprimands Miss Temple for providing food for her famished pupils:

“when you put bread and cheese, instead of burnt porridge into these children’s mouths, you may indeed feed their vile bodies, but you little think how you starve their immortal souls!”[32]

Likewise, Reverend William Carus Wilson, the establisher of Cowan Bridge School which was attended by Charlotte and her sisters claimed that ‘the children were to be trained up to regard higher things than dainty pampering of the appetite’[33]. The lower things to which he refers are matters of the flesh, equated with sexuality by Mr Brocklehurst who states that by depriving the girls of food he will fulfil his mission ‘“to mortify in these girls the lusts of the flesh”’[34]. In a manner similar to Charlotte’s father who ‘wished to make his children hardy, and indifferent to the pleasure of eating and dress,’[35] Mr Brocklehurst commands his pupils to disdain the corporeal and the material so as ‘“not to accustom them to habits of luxury and indulgence, but to render them hardy, patient, self-denying”’.[36]

Charlotte Brontë therefore emphasises the moral quality of physical endurance and suffering since the immortal soul is deemed to be of more importance than the mortal body. In Shirley, Brontë writes that pain should be embraced for the purposes of moral development. Therefore, Caroline Helstone should welcome the wound which symbolises her grief:

[s]how no consternation; close your fingers firmly upon the gift; let it sting through your palm. Never mind; in time, after your hand and arm have swelled and quivered long with torture, the squeezed scorpion will die, and you will have learned the great lesson how to endure without a sob.[37]

Brontë urges those who are disappointed in love to endure their pain in order to learn stoicism. Thus, starvation is also a lesson in self-control as Brontë ‘repeatedly favours suffering over the easy pleasures of appetite and sexuality.’[38] Charlotte herself renounced bodily desire in favour of the soul as Gaskell states that ‘[i]t was inevitable that ‘the intensity of her feeling should wear out her physical health.’[39] Described as slender yet passionate, Charlotte Brontë was unfashionably ‘thin and expressive’[40], sacrificing her flesh to feed her fervent spirit. When George Henry Lewes met Charlotte in 1850 he described her as ‘“a little, plain, provincial, sickly-looking old maid”, yet on the strength of the novels, Marian Evans saw more: “What passion, what fire in her!”’[41]

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

[1] E. Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (London: The Penguin Group, 1985), p.55

[2] ibid, p.55

[3] ibid, p.55

[4] C. Brontë, Charlotte, Shirley (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993), p.58

[5] ibid, p.58

[6] Patrick Brontë to the Rev. John Buckworth, Near K., Yorkshire, November 27th., 1821, from M. Spark, The Brontë Letters (London: Macmillan, 1966), p.34

[7] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.84

[8] ibid, p.370

[9] L. Gordon, Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life (London: Vintage, 1995), p.186

[10] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.91

[11] ibid, p.98

[12] Jane Eyre (London: The Penguin Group, 1996), p.190

[13] ibid, p.190

[14] ibid, p.190

[15] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.87

[16] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.87

[17] Villette (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984), p.185

[18] Plato, Phaedo, in Five Dialogues, trans. by G.M.A. Grube, 2nd edn (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2002), p.101

[19] ibid, p.102

[20] ibid, p.101

[21] Brontë, Shirley, p.172

[22] ibid, p.172

[23] C. Brontë, The Professor (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1994), p.180

[24] Plato, Phaedo, p.103

[25] Plato, Phaedo, p.104

[26] ibid, p.103

[27] Jane Eyre, p.69

[28] ibid, p.69

[29] Gordon, Charlotte Brontë, p.18

[30] Jane Eyre, p.78

[31] In Villette Lucy describes Catholicism which hindered spiritual growth owing to the obtainability of confession and indulgences. The Catholic ‘CHURCH strove to bring up her children, robust in body, feeble in soul, fat, ruddy, hale, joyous, ignorant, unthinking, unquestioning. “Eat, drink, and live!” she says. “Look after your bodies; leave your souls to me. I hold their cure – guide their course: I guarantee their final fate.”’

[32] Jane Eyre, p.75

[33] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.103

[34] Jane Eyre, p.76

[35] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.88

[36] Jane Eyre, p.74

[37] Brontë, Shirley, pp.100-1

[38] A. Krugovoy Silver, Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p.82

[39] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.210

[40] Lyndall, Charlotte Brontë, p.219

[41] To Mrs Bray (15th Feb., 5th and 12th Mar. 1853), in Haight, ed., The George Eliot Letters, ii, 87, 91, 92, from Gordon, Charlotte Brontë, p.255