Tag Archives: hysteria

Women’s Suffrage: The Shut Mouth and Forced Ingestion

26 Aug

On the 5th of July 1909, female self-starvation became politicised as WSPU member Marion Wallace Dunlop initiated a hunger strike within Holloway Goal. Suffragettes famously embarked upon this strike in order to protest their confinement and punishment for public acts of physical insubordination that included breaking windows and chaining themselves to railings. Their rejection of food was a reaction to the government’s refusal to grant them the status of political prisoners. Rather than taking notice of and meeting the hunger strikers’ demands, however, the authorities responded with forcible-feeding.

The late Victorian contest for control of the female body reaches its apogee in the battle for woman’s suffrage. The female mouth, in this instance, which has been open in protest and then closed in resistance, becomes a site that embodies the sexual and political violence always present but often hidden in nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century discourse on women’s ‘aberrant’ eating behaviours.

The hunger strikes that occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century were not isolated incidents but were a product of the Victorian debate surrounding female eating habits. Women’s dietary requirements were monitored throughout the 1800s when there was much discussion upon the subject of what was appropriate for a woman to participate in or consume. According to newspaper articles and etiquette guides, women ought to eat less than men, while certain foods were considered altogether unsuitable. These restrictions that were placed upon the female body possessed a moral dimension since appetite was connected with sexuality. Woman’s hunger and consumption were therefore subject to constant regulation.

When the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded in 1903, its members endeavoured to gain recognition as subjective individuals, rather than submit to being defined in terms of their physiological form. One of the aims of the WSPU was to alter the perception that women were closely connected with their bodies. Ironically, this was achieved by starving the very object by which they were defined. Since it was problematic to classify women using bodies that were severely diminished by hunger strike, self-starvation contested the relationship between women and their physical form. The suffragettes used this bodily presence / absence to obtain a political and public existence.

Suffragettes campaigned for sexual equality and to alter patriarchal perceptions of women. Bodies were central to this agenda, Lucy Bland arguing that the suffrage movement aimed to achieve ‘the eradication of women’s experience of sexual objectification, sexual violence, and lack of bodily autonomy’. Medico-legal structures justified denying women admission to ‘masculine’ social and political spheres by pointing to the female body’s natural physical weakness in comparison to its masculine counterpart and arguing that a woman’s energy should be preserved for conceiving and bearing children.

The nineteenth century woman was defined in terms of her use as a reproductive entity. The productive capabilities of the female body and its social and political application are articulated by Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, within which he argues that the ‘political investment of the body is bound up, in with its economic use; it is largely as a force of production that the body is invested with relations of power and domination’. Perceived as objects that produce, rather than subjects who consume, a power dynamic was established in which women were reduced to their physical form and thus denied a political and legal existence. Foucault asserts, however, that this subjection was necessary in order to maintain women’s situation as productive beings: its constitution as labour power is possible only if it is caught up in a system of subjection…the body becomes a useful force only if it is both a productive body and a subjected body.

Prior to the suffrage movement, women who were restricted by their role as producers protested this situation by engaging in self-starvation which suspended the body’s ability for production. The refusal to eat functioned as a female protest tactic throughout the nineteenth century and reached its climax in the hunger strikes of 1909. Women’s bodies that had been exploited for their reproductive capacities were reclaimed by the suffragettes, who, like their mothers and grandmothers before them, aimed to achieve emancipation from domestic life, taking their campaign to extreme measures using militant protest.

Jane Marcus develops the concept of rejecting these traditional female roles that were connected with the body, arguing that ‘[w]hen woman, quintessential nurturer, refuses to eat, she cannot nurture the nation.’ In a ‘symbolic refusal of motherhood’, the suffragettes refused to be defined in terms of the body and its capacity for bearing and nurturing children. In doing so, they challenged woman’s social responsibility of caring for the family, which in turn served as a microcosm of the state. Rejecting their maternal position within the familial sphere through self-starvation was therefore also a threat to the future of society as a whole.

Prior to the nineteenth century, bodies were publicly exploited to exemplify unlawful behaviour. Punishment was a universal spectacle that focussed upon the body with frequent executions and branding of criminals. However, during the 1800s, ‘the great spectacle of physical punishment disappeared; the tortured body was avoided; the theatrical representation of pain was excluded from punishment.’ The suffragettes revived the spectacular element of punishment by bringing the suffering body back into the public view through inflicting the self-punishment of hunger strike. This in turn initiated further physical ‘punishment’ through force-feeding which, owing to its widespread report in contemporary literature and illustrations, enabled the suffering body to once more assume centre stage. The suffragette in her solitary cell thus became the protagonist of her own theatrical production that was viewed by thousands.

Foucault, on the other hand, argues that following the close of the eighteenth century, bodies became unimportant in terms of punishment and were only touched in order ‘to reach something other than the body itself.’ The body was thought of as an instrument or intermediary: if one intervenes upon it to imprison it, or to make it work, it is in order to deprive the individual of a liberty that is regarded both as a right and as property. The suffragettes, however, demonstrated that the imprisoned body did not merely serve as an intermediary, but was itself a symbol of woman’s experience, damaged and starved by political inequalities. Assuming the role of their own torturers, these women inflicted punishment upon themselves in order to illustrate the injurious potential of being denied access to the public sphere. The suffragettes were thereby able to expose the extent of their political and social reduction through the spectacle of their bruised and emaciated bodies.

While Foucault writes that as an instrument, the body ‘is caught up in a system of constraints and privations, obligations and prohibitions’, the suffragettes revealed the extent to which their bodies were already constrained. The nineteenth-century woman was bound by patriarchal society, defined in terms of her body and imprisoned within the domestic sphere. Incarceration only served to exaggerate women’s social and political position, while the hunger strike called attention to female minds that were starved of education and employment.

The nineteenth-century female body is inextricably linked to punishment, politics and power. According to Foucault, the body and the ‘power relations’ with which it is invested are always central to punishment since: in our societies, the systems of punishment are to be situated in a certain “political economy” of the body…it is always the body that is at issue – the body and its forces, their utility and their docility, their distribution and their submission.

These power relations are clearly played out in the case of the suffragette hunger strikes and government force-feeding, wherein the struggle to assume control of the female body accords with Foucault’s notion of power. Rather than being distributed throughout society via a ‘top-down’ system originating from a single patriarchal source, ‘power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate’. The suffragettes’ power lay in their decision to embark upon a hunger strike, which in turn provoked medical response to force-feed the starving women. In the power struggle between the prison doctor and the suffragette, the hunger strike left women weak and seemingly more malleable to masculine authority. Yet, the prisoners were able to use this weakness as a form of power. Roberts write that ‘[t]he hunger strike was a species of passive resistance’, a phrase which critic Jane Marcus also uses to describe hunger striking, adding that it was a ‘weapon…used by the obviously weak against the powerful’. The suffragettes were far from weak, however, their very imprisonment suggests that they were in fact regarded as a powerful group since otherwise they would pose no threat and would not require incarceration.

It is particularly significant that the body was used as a tool to gain political status at the end of the nineteenth century, coming shortly after the diagnosis of self-starvation as anorexia nervosa in 1873 and in a century obsessed with the regulation of female bodies and women’s relation to food. W. Vandereycken and Ron Van Deth question whether ‘the self-starvation of anorexic patients perhaps served as an example? Or had anorexia itself been an expression of silent protest within the walls of the Victorian bourgeois home?’ Female self-starvation, both in the form of anorexia nervosa and the suffragette hunger strike, have the same origin. They arise as part of the battle for control of the female body within Victorian society. Suffragette prisoners and women diagnosed as anorexic both used food refusal as a weapon against patriarchal authority. Both wanted to be perceived as volitional beings, rather than the ‘weaker’ sex, defined in terms of the body and governed by its reproductive organs.

Despite the connection between anorexia nervosa and hunger strikes, however, the motives behind anorexic and hysterical self-starvation were regarded as distinct from that of suffragette prisoners. While Gull identified his patients as suffering from ‘mental perversity’ and Lasègue theorised that anorexia was hysterical in origin, suffragettes starved themselves in protest against the government’s refusal to grant them first division status. According to a report published in The British Medical Journal in 1912, this meant that they were ‘in a normal mental condition, which cannot be said of the patients who refuse food in the asylums’ since ‘there is certainly no evidence of “hysteria”’. Whereas suffragettes ceased self-starvation once they reached their political goal, the goal of the anorexic could only be achieved once patriarchy ceased its attempt to control female bodies and women’s lives in general.

Tamar Heller and Patricia Moran maintain that ‘the anorexic—like her discursive and etiological sister, the hysteric—is apparently on a hunger strike against domesticity and the lack of nourishment it provides for women, the kind of hunger for a sphere outside the domestic’. The suffragette hunger strikers campaigned for emancipation from the private sphere for all women, whereas the anorexic’s food refusal was part of an individual battle to gain control of her own body. By refusing to eat, the suffragettes transformed self-starvation from the personal to the political.

Foucault states that ‘in punishment-as-spectacle…it was always ready to invert the shame inflicted on the victim into pity or glory’. This was revived by the hunger strikers since their capacity to maintain their fasting, despite the violent force-feeding, glorified them as strong, determined individuals. Government authorities attempted to prevent this when on the 18th March, 1912 in response to a declaration that forcible-feeding should be stopped, the Home Secretary ‘firmly disagree[d], foreseeing mass suffrage martyrdom.’

With the diagnosis of anorexia nervosa, self-starvation was viewed as a shameful illness that must be treated privately in the home or hospital before the patient was able to return to society. From a personal affair acted out within the privacy of the middle-class bourgeois home between the anorexic girl, her family and the attending physician, with the arrival of suffragette hunger strikers self-starvation became a public spectacle.

Unlike in the cases of anorexia nervosa, suffragette hunger striking was not the behaviour of individual women, but a political act in which many came together and starved themselves en masse. While medical practitioners and government officials considered hunger striking to be rebellious or suicidal, in reality its aim was to call attention to the political motive for what were judged as criminal offences.

The government and the medical establishment also held the belief that the hunger strikes were an attempt to reduce prison sentences. One physician, Dr Nesbit, writes that the hunger strikes were carried out as a method of avoiding punishment, describing the behaviour as ‘“a very cheap way of escaping the penalty of the law”’. A report published three years later, however, disagrees, stating that ‘[t]he suffrage prisoners…have never hunger struck to shorten their sentences, but only to obtain equality of prison treatment for prisoners convicted of like offences’.

Since their campaign was political, rather than personal, the imprisoned women only refused food until their demands were met. The true motives for the hunger strike are recounted by suffragettes themselves in fictional and autobiographical writings, such as K. Roberts’ ‘Some Pioneers and a Prison’, published in 1913. In her work, Roberts reveals that since petitions proved useless in gaining first division status, ‘it was determined to make a protest by politely and quietly declining to wear the prison clothes and eat the prison food’. Members of the WSPU protested ‘against second division treatment, among ordinary criminals, being given to a woman who had committed political offences.’ The narrator does not consider her actions to be ‘an offence at all’, but merely a demonstration against the inequality of government law.

Self-starvation was a protest against injustice, not only of women’s treatment in general, but of the way in which the campaign against this injustice was perceived by authority figures. In a report published in 1909, C. Mansell Moullin writes that: they are fighting for a political idea. Even the Government, though it will not treat them as political prisoners, does not venture to deny that. For this they are being treated as common criminals, in a way that men never are, and forcible feeding is resorted to because that is the only way in which the Government can make the continuance of their punishment as common criminals possible. By diagnosing suffragette behaviour as criminal, the government was able to discount women’s appeal for political power.

Similarly, a few decades earlier, physicians had diagnosed women who took control of their own bodies through self-starvation as being of unsound mind and suffering from the ‘disease’ anorexia nervosa. Nineteenth-century patriarchal structures defined what they considered to be undesirable behaviour as criminal, insane or the result of physical illness in order to justify ignoring female subjectivity. Women’s efforts to challenge the status quo through political protest or by attempting to gain ownership of their bodies were discounted by the government, which defined their actions as abnormal or dangerous and requiring imprisonment and medical treatment.

Even though the days of the body as spectacle were over, authority figures continued in their attempt to regulate and normalise the rebellious female body. In the nineteenth century, ‘a whole army of technicians took over from the executioner, the immediate anatomist of pain: warders, doctors, chaplains, psychiatrists, psychologists, educationalists’. Foucault’s argument that the executioner was replaced by the physician suggests that medical examination and treatment of the body is as violating as the pain and suffering caused by a public death.

J.S. Edkins, however, disagrees with this association, instead aiming to elevate the physician. Edkins’ remarks are one example of the opposition raised in the case of treating healthy women, writing that the use of force-feeding is ‘derogatory to the dignity of the medical profession that its members should be called in to treat with force healthy but recalcitrant prisoners.’ There is a suggestion in this of the status of the profession being removed only in degree from that of common executioner or flogging warder. According to this report, the suffragettes ought not be made to suffer the physical ‘punishment’ of force-feeding since this is beneath the dignity of the medical practioner whose job it should be to treat ill patients, rather than to administer violent procedures upon a healthy subject.

Despite this account, however, prison medical authorities did force-feed women, treating them as mere objects to be kept alive, while ignoring their mental state and subjectivity. This is exemplified in C. Lytton’s ‘Prisons and Prisoners’, the narrator of which relates that following her sixth force-feeding: ‘I complained to the doctor that the processes of digestion were absolutely stagnant. I suggested to him that he should leave out one meal, with a view to allowing the natural forces of the body to readjust themselves. The physician’s response symbolises masculine reactions to the suffragette campaign as a whole: ‘[h]e did not answer me, but turned to the head assistant…“Do you understand her? I don’t”’. Rather than treating the narrator as a reasonable being, the doctor finds her words nonsensical and he chooses to ignore her plea.

The suffragette’s perceivably incomprehensible words match her ‘irrational’ actions. The female language of self-starvation is dismissed by patriarchal authority as the ramblings of a lunatic. Some physicians diagnosed self-starvation itself as the symptom of an unbalanced mind, Dr Nesbit stating that: [i]f an otherwise healthy individual refuses food to the injury of her health and danger to her life, she is without doubt to my mind temporarily insane, just as much as a person taking a dose of poison in similar circumstances. Let the idea be what it may—political or otherwise—the mind is unhinged, and the individual must be guarded against herself. Forcible-feeding was thus justified by diagnosing hunger striking as the result of insanity, the subject’s lack of rational thought suggesting that she is incapable of decision making and does not really intend self-harm.

Richard Smith points to the ethical implications involved in allowing the hunger strike to continue: ‘even though he might start his strike in his right mind, sometime before he dies (and usually only very shortly before) he loses his faculties. How then for the next few days can the doctor continue to be sure that the prisoner knows what he is doing and wants to continue? He cannot.’ It may be questioned why women chose a form of protest that deliberately reduced and weakened their bodies, thus confirming patriarchal views that women were too frail to be granted political power. According to Adrienne Munich: they may have been responding, in part, to seductions of a dominant middle-class culture that claimed that women’s bodies, as well as political aspirations, should be small and subject to regulatory control. I add that the suffragettes challenged this masculine version of the ideal woman by using their physical fragility as a power mechanism to make a political statement. By purposefully weakening their bodies, the hunger strikers demonstrated, in an extreme form, the state in which they were kept by those who demanded their restriction to the private sphere. The vote would therefore enable women to exercise their full potential and develop as subjective individuals, rather than being reduced and inhibited by government law.

This was symbolised in suffrage propaganda, which Linda Schlossberg notes, ‘frequently imagines the vote itself to be a kind of sustenance’. Denied a voice, the suffragettes called attention to the fact that their political exclusion was a form of intellectual starvation. Their political non-existence thus became physically expressed through their wasting bodies. Self-starvation was not only a political statement; it was also a method of self-control achieved through refusing physical penetration. The politics of desire are made apparent in the practices of self-starvation and force-feeding. The closed mouth frustrates the opponent’s desire by refusing entry, while simultaneously preventing the subject from satisfying their own hunger or sexual desire. The subject and the object cannot access or satisfy their desire if one of the bodies is impenetrable.

The nineteenth-century woman was able to use refusal in order to gain power by maintaining ownership of her body, rather than surrendering it to her husband, doctor or prison authority. By closing the body and denying entry to external ideas, hunger-striking also served as a symbol of resistance to notions of women as weak, passive and inferior to men.

Conversely, feeding was a metaphor for the forced ingestion of patriarchal concepts of womanhood. The pain caused by forcible-feeding is symbolic of the damage inflicted upon women by these ‘ideals’ of Victorian femininity. Frustrating desire and causing immense suffering, the masochism of hunger-striking is referred to by Lady Constance Lytton as ‘“the weapon of self-hurt”’. Sylvia Pankhurst describes the discomforting experience of hunger strike, speaking of pains in the back, chest and stomach, lack of circulation and palpitations as ‘gradually the feeling of weakness and illness grows.’ Every day, she is able to perceive ‘that one has grown thinner, that the bones are showing out more and more clearly, and that the eyes are grown more hollow.’ Following release from prison, many suffragettes continued to experience problems with digestive functions and suffered from headaches and nervous symptoms.

The sacrifice involved in the suffrage campaign did not only include self-starvation, but even extended to suicide. In June 1912 during a mass force-feeding in Holloway Goal, Emily Wilding Davidson threw herself down a staircase, while the following year she cast herself under the King’s horse and was crushed to death.

These efforts were undermined, however, by the introduction of forcible-feeding. Patriarchal authorities attempted to neutralise the physical effects of the hunger strike, and the protest that it represented, by robbing suffragettes of a weapon that did not conform to masculine discourses of power. In 1909, 36 of the 110 hunger-striking suffragettes were force-fed. Like the diagnosis of anorexia nervosa in 1873, forcible-feeding of hunger striking prisoners was a method of controlling women’s bodies. In the British Medical Journal (1912), the Home Secretary stated that ‘force feeding was instituted by him to keep the suffrage prisoners in health’. He also assured that ‘the practice of forcible feeding is unattended by danger or pain,’ yet both were found to be untrue.

Forcible-feeding was put into practice in order to avoid death, while the process of feeding itself was painful and injurious. Prior to 1974 when the Home Secretary declared that ‘a prison medical officer would not be neglecting his duty if he did not feed a prisoner against his will’, there was considerable debate as to whether forcible-feeding should be carried out.

Some were concerned that allowing a prisoner to starve themselves to death meant that the supervising authority would be held responsible. One physician questioned: whether if a prison doctor provided substantial meals for a prisoner, but never bothered himself whether they were eaten or not, and the prisoner eventually died of starvation, the doctor could be held to be an accessory before the fact to suicide. In response, Mr Burrows stated that: it was a well-known principle of the Common Law that, where one person was in charge of another, who could not help himself or herself, there was an obligation on the person in charge to see that that person was properly fed and had proper attention. It became a concern that if women were left to starve, this would ‘bring the officials into conflict with a large number of prison rules’. The motivation for feeding the women was thus self-interest on the part of the attending physician who did not wish to be charged with manslaughter.

Others believed that it was their medical duty to sustain the prisoners’ lives, Dr Collingwood stating that ‘he feels that the only function of a medical officer as such is to prevent loss of life’. Unlike modern law which acknowledges ‘that a competent prisoner may choose to commit suicide by starvation’, suffragettes were not permitted to starve themselves to death. While in today’s society intervention only occurs when a prisoner is unable to make an informed decision, force-feeding took place on a regular basis in the case of the suffragette hunger strikes. During one case, Leigh v Gladstone, a woman who was forcibly-fed ‘later attempted to sue for trespass’ and was unsuccessful since it was perceived by the court as the doctor’s duty to prevent her death: Lord Alvestone, Lord Chief Justice, directed the jury, saying: “…as a matter of law it was the duty of the prison officials to preserve the health of the prisoners, and a fortiori to preserve their lives…”

Prior to the suffrage campaign, self-starvation was often used as a method of suicide in the Victorian prison. In his account, Philip Priestly records that ‘“[o]bstinate refusal of food, and an attempt to die by starvation were of common occurrence…always to be overcome by forcible feeding.”’ Force-feeding in this case was justified by claiming that it prevented the ‘crime’ of constant food refusal, since to starve oneself to death was regarded as a form of suicide. In one report written a few months following the onset of the hunger strikes, it is stated that self-starvation must be prevented since it is a form of suicide and therefore a criminal action: [i]f prisoners are kept in prison, it is clearly the duty of the authorities to prevent them committing other felonies, and it must not be forgotten that suicide is a felony. Thus, force-feeding was justified in these cases as being carried out in the name of duty and preventing crime.

Some medical authorities, however, were of the opinion that no intervention should be given in the case of hunger strike. Edward Thompson, Surgeon at Tyrone County Hospital, wrote in 1909 that ‘the duties of medical officers of prisons are, or should be, confined entirely to the treatment of sick prisoners’. According to this report, self-starving women should not be treated since their behaviour was not the result of illness. It was argued that the suffragettes should instead be permitted to assert control over their own bodies given that they are ‘political prisoners, and therefore should be allowed to do much as they please.’

In addition to these arguments, Bea Brockman writes that the forcible-feeding of suffragettes was ‘justified on paternalistic grounds…As in all paternalistic judgements, it was felt that the doctor “knows best”. The physicians who carried out the feeding did not ‘know best’ however. According to The British Medical Journal they ‘were acting practically as prison warders, and were putting their medical skill to an improper use by carrying out forcible feeding against the wishes of the patients.’ During the hunger strikes, doctors behaved unprofessionally as controlling authorities. Instead of acting in the best interests of the patient, they removed their autonomy in what equated to physical abuse. The British Medical Journal records that ‘[t]he public trusts in the profession, and has great faith in “medical treatment”’: by force-feeding suffragette prisoners, however, this trust was abused.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault states that ‘there may be a “knowledge” of the body that is not exactly the science of its functioning, and a mastery of its forces that is more than the ability to conquer them’. The medical and legal establishments claimed to possess knowledge of the female body, which in turn was used in the subjection of women. Since, according to Foucault, ‘power and knowledge directly imply one another’, this ‘knowledge’ of women placed men in a position of power over their female patients. Law, medicine and the regulation of women’s bodies are combined in the case of forcible-feeding, J. Price Williams writing that ‘[t]he fact that prison doctors are constables explains how this abuse has arisen, but does not justify it.’

The suffragettes were imprisoned by legal and medical authorities who exploited their power in order to dominate others: [t]he Constable-doctor comes to the aid of the Government with his skill as a doctor, his power as a constable, and, using the term “medical treatment” as a cloak, commits an act which would be an assault if done by any ordinary doctor. Using this ‘cloak’ of authority, the physician was able to control women by diagnosing their bodies as sick and in need of treatment, thereby forcing their submission to patriarchal authority.

Prior to the forcible-feeding of suffragette prisoners, anorexia nervosa and hysteria were treated in a similar fashion. In the nineteenth century treatment of anorexia, the patient was often removed from her family, superintended by nurses and provided with food at regular intervals. In the case of ‘Miss K. R—, aged fourteen’, reported by William Gull in 1888, ‘[a] nurse was obtained from Guy’s, and light food ordered every few hours’. Although Gull himself did not admit to using force-feeding, ‘[p]ublished clinical reports from doctors of lesser status…reveal that force-feeding was not uncommon in cases of anorexia nervosa’. An issue of the Lancet in 1888 states that one patient who ‘went to live in a farmer’s house some miles away, was forced to take “plenty of milk and fresh eggs,” and came home very much improved.’ In the same year, the journal published notes on the case of a nine year old girl who was also forcibly-fed: [s]mall quantities of liquid food were ordered to be given to her frequently; for a few times she voluntarily swallowed it, but on the 7th she became stupid, and everything had to be administered to her forcibly.

Force-feeding anorexic patients was not always successful, however. A report in an 1895 issue of the Lancet described a fatal case of anorexia. The patient refused food so ‘was fed an enemata of peptonised milk, beef tea, and brandy.’ This was carried out for two to three days and ‘[i]n ten days she could take a moderate diet by the mouth, but suffered from diarrhoea. On the thirteenth day after admission she rapidly became worse, the temperature rose to 102°F, and on the fifteenth day she died.’

Forcible-feeding was also performed in lunatic asylums upon women who refused to eat. In the case of hysterical patients, however, feeding was sometimes employed by the physician for their own financial gain and to secure a successful reputation. Joan Jacobs Brumberg states that ‘the medical entrepreneurs who ran the private asylums turned to the same procedures when they faced an intractable patient whose parents were paying handsomely to see her weight increase.’

In some cases, the threat of force-feeding was sufficient to encourage a hysterical woman to cease her starvation. J.A. Campbell, Superintendent of the Garlands Asylum in Carlisle, writes in The British Medical Journal (1878): [c]onsiderable numbers of girls in the hysteric state, who had refused food at home, when they were brought here, and the means and manner of giving it were explained to them, have at once given in and taken their food. I always make a point of taking such patients to see another fed with the pump. In order to discourage them from taking up the practice of self-starvation, asylum doctors ensured that new patients observed other women being forcibly-fed.

While this was often a successful method of prevention in the case of hysterical women, the threat of punishment failed to deter the suffragettes from their political hunger strike. The self-punishment of starvation and subsequent physically punishing practice of force-feeding was welcomed by the suffragettes because it drew attention to their campaign. Unlike hysterical and anorexic patients, members of the WSPU did not give in when faced with force-feeding but instead suffered for their cause. By utilising forcible-feeding, patriarchal authorities refused to acknowledge the political dimension of the suffragette starvation.

As in the case of anorexia nervosa, the prison doctor judged that treatment had been successful and the patient ‘normalised’ when her body no longer displayed signs of emaciation. Only the symptoms of the hunger strikes were treated, revealing that patriarchal perspectives upon women and their bodies underwent little alteration during the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. In the struggle against political exclusion, the suffragettes’ bodies were bruised and battered in their arrest, and subsequently imprisoned, starved and force-fed. Yet, the authorities only saw emaciated bodies that could die under their supervision.

The process of force-feeding is graphically described in contemporary journals and works of fiction. In ‘Forcible Feeding of Suffrage Prisoners’ published in 1912, the authors disclose that ‘[t]he feeding cup method is frequently forcibly administered solely by the wardresses, without the supervision of a qualified medical practioner.’ The procedure was often carried out by women in which the wardresses became the agents of the patriarchs, carrying out their work. Women’s bodies were held down and restrained by other women’s bodies, the very bodies that the suffragettes fought to liberate. The force-feeding was violent and brutal, a power struggle of physical strength that symbolised the suffragettes’ political and social battle: [d]uring the struggle before the feeding, prisoners were held down by force, flung on the floor, tied to chairs and iron bedsteads. As might be expected, severe bruises were thus inflicted. The prisoner’s arms that were ‘held firmly, so that she could not move’ represent the restraints placed upon women by early twentieth-century society, while the bruises are visible marks of their suffering, both mental and physical.

It was not only the act of force-feeding itself that was injurious, there were many side effects. A report in the British Medical Journal states that ‘[i]n most cases local frontal headache, earache, and trigeminal neuralgia supervened, besides severe gastric pain, which lasted throughout the forcible feeding, preventing sleep.’ Choking, vomiting, palpitation, faintness, and cold temperature were common, while in one case, food was accidentally injected into the lung.

In accounts of forcible-feeding, the mouth is often the focal point of the procedure, Agnes Savill and Victor Horsley recording that ‘[w]hen the oesophageal tube was employed the mouth was wrenched open by pulling the head back by the hair over the edge of a chair, forcing down the chin, and inserting the gag between the teeth.’ During the feeding ‘the lips, inside of the cheeks, and gums were frequently bruised, sometimes bleeding and sore to touch for days after.’ The mouth becomes stopped up with food in order to prevent speech, its bleeding a symbol of how the female voice was damaged by those who did not heed its words and instead demanded its silence. The injured mouth not only represents the wounded voice, its closure also suggests a refusal to be penetrated. If this is the case, as critics such as Jane Marcus have noted, ‘[t]he depictions of forcible feeding on several suffragette representations may be clearly read as rape scenes.’ The brutality of rape is depicted during the feeding, as the mouth was forced open ‘by sawing the edge of the cup along the gums’, while ‘[t]he nasal mucus membrane was frequently lacerated’ and the process left the ‘throat…swollen and sore’. The throat became the vaginal passageway which was torn and injured during the force-feeding, pointing to the sexual abuse that women’s bodies suffered at the hands of men.

The nineteenth- and early twentieth-century female body was used for sexual purposes and to bear children, both of which caused internal physical harm. Despite the critics who define this procedure as rape, however, I would argue that to do so marginalises self-starvation as an act of political agency. The suffragettes could choose whether or not to eat and were aware of the consequences of not doing so. Suffragettes permitted themselves to be violated as since they could have discontinued the hunger-strike at any point, force-feeding could have been prevented.

The fact that the self-starvation was sustained is an indication of women’s power in which they compelled prison doctors to create suffragette martyrdom through repeated force-feeding. To simply view the procedure as rape fails to account for this element of choice and instead subscribes to the conventional power dynamic which the suffragettes intended to resist.

Often, however, forcible-feeding failed to increase the prisoner’s weight and health. A report in The British Medical Journal states that: ‘[h]owever successful it may have proved in patients suffering from other diseases, the experience of the last year or two seems to prove pretty conclusively that it fails very frequently, if not always, in the case of the suffragist hunger strikers’. The phrase ‘other diseases’ suggests that the suffragettes’ self-starvation was regarded as an illness that ought to be pathologised, treated and thereby controlled. This echoes the diagnosis of self-starvation as anorexia nervosa in 1873.

Stating that self-starvation is a physical condition, a ‘disease’, the report later claims that it is a mental decision capable of affecting physicality: ‘[i]t seems quite possible that digestion, absorption, and assimilation may all be more or less inhibited by an effort of the will’. According to this, suffragettes were able to volitionally hinder digestive processes, suggesting that self-starvation was controlled by the subject. This contradicts the article’s earlier classification of self-starvation as a disease.

Despite these assertions, the hunger-striking could not be ‘cured’ since it was not an illness, nor did women have control over their digestive functions. Suffragette food refusal was politically motivated and this behaviour was repeated until their demands were met. This article reduces the political to the physical in stating that it is otherwise.

The female body as an object to be fought over is symbolically portrayed by what became known as the Cat and Mouse Act. Introduced on March 25th 1913, the Prisoner’s Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Bill was ‘[a]imed specifically at the suffragettes, the law enabled the government to release a hunger-striking prisoner and reincarcerate her after she recovered’. Suffragettes were released from prison, to return when their health was restored. Once back in prison, however, the hunger strike would resume, this cycle of imprisonment and release driven solely by the body. In 1912, it was stated in the House of Commons that: of 102 cases of prisoners who joined in the hunger strike we have investigated, forty-six were released long before the termination of their sentences, because their health had been so rapidly reduced as to alarm the medical officers. The language of the act posits women as mice, victims pursued by the government. Women become prey, consumable objects to be caught, toyed with and finally gobbled up by patriarchal authorities, a process which Sylvia Pankhurst found to grow ‘[i]ncreasingly wearying and painful’.

On October 21st 1913, Emmeline Pankhurst delivered a speech in New York entitled ‘Why We Are Militant’, during which she referred to the suffrage campaign and subsequent imprisonment as a ‘battle’. The battle for control of the female body at the outset of the twentieth century came to involve the diametrically opposed behaviours of female hunger striking and masculine forcible-feeding. Speaking of the ‘joy of battle and the exultation of victory, Emmeline Pankhurst expressed the enjoyment of fighting to reclaim women’s minds and bodies. Suffragettes used their bodies to fight for their minds, they were ‘women fighting for a great idea’. Their cause was social, aiming ‘for betterment of the human race’, even though the methods that they chose to achieve it were considered anti-social and rebellious. The betterment of the human race was achieved ‘through the emancipation and uplifting of women.’ The battle for control of the female body was injurious to the bodies of those who fought, yet it was in order to secure a better life, for the minds and bodies of the women who were to follow: [t]he battle cost the lives of a few, and the health of most of those who went through it: but it has secured slightly better conditions and a different status for political prisoners in the future. It is a thing that we can always be proud that even—even after forcible feeding was permitted, or, rather, ordered by the Home Secretary—not one of our women gave in. The suffragettes who engaged in the hunger strikes of 1909 did not act in vain because in 1928, women over twenty one were granted the vote.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

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Some Concluding Thoughts on Hysteria

18 Aug

During the nineteenth century, women’s language was restricted to the universal signifying order, which, while providing a basis for masculine subjecthood, was unable to fulfil women’s ontological requirements. Female use of masculine language merely reinforced the hegemonic order and led to further internalisation of its precepts. While the female hysteric was part of the masculine economy, she was powerless, confined to the domestic sphere wherein having no access to her own language she was precluded from the possibility of subjecthood. For women the only method of acquiring subjectivity was to utilise non-symbolic, bodily forms of communication. The psychosomatic nature of such expression challenged the epistemological basis of patriarchy founded upon Cartesian dualism and binary notions of gender. Confronted with such a contestation to its fundamental principles, patriarchal society posited the hysteric as Other which provided a justification for controlling female expression. Since only mutually intelligible utterances become comprehensible intercourse, the patriarchal refusal to accept transgressive female expression as a language resulted in the diagnosis of hysteria.

Such an ability to define permissible forms of linguistic communication became the central coercive device of the ‘closed masculine signifying economy’ [1], fundamental to which was the Kristevean mirror stage that ensured a subject/object division. By designating themselves as active individuals within such a binary, patriarchal subjects remained in control of masculine exchange. However, the frequent inability of the Victorian female character to recognise her reflection destabilised the subject/object binary established in the mirror stage. This thereby prevented the occurrence of the thetic phase by inhibiting delimitation of the fundamental components of masculine communication, self and Other. The hysteric therefore transgressed masculine society by existing beyond conceptions of subject and object, thereby invalidating the inherent power differential between those who are posited and those who posit.

The destabilising effect of such transgression was compounded by limitations in medical diagnostic ability which further undermined the Cartesian binary that was utilised by patriarchal society as a form of containment. Owing to the difficulty of observing and validating psychological phenomena, medical practioners accordingly preferenced easily quantifiable physical symptoms. Therefore, in spite of the attempt by the medical establishment to contain hysteria by promoting Cartesian dualism, the focus upon physical symptoms rather than emotional states created the potential for a further destabilisation of masculine control. This was due to the physician inadvertently promoting psychosomatic expression by encouraging women to disproportionately emphasise or invent physical components of psychological afflictions in order to receive treatment. The resulting proliferation of hysteria and irruption of the female chora therefore destabilised the masculine symbolic order.

Such contamination of symbolic masculine society with the urges of the ‘feminine’ body reintroduced the certainty of death to patriarchal society which existed in part to defend the masculine psyche from the realisation of the inevitability of mortality. This resulted from the exposure of women’s bodies to the damaging potential of the Kristevean death drive which the defensive construction of masculine symbolic language[2] attempted to resist. Accordingly, in Wuthering Heights Hindley Earnshaw’s wife Frances ‘began describing with hysterical emotion the effect it produced on her to see black…she felt so afraid of dying’[3]. Such hysterical transgression of masculine symbolic language and reintroduction of the death drive is also portrayed by Lucy Westenra who begins to resemble ‘a corpse after a prolonged illness’[4] and Catherine Earnshaw whose ‘cheeks, at once blanched and livid, assumed the aspect of death.’[5]

Fear of the chora and its transgressive potential is also apparent in masculine responses to menstrual blood which, being ‘a physiological marker of social disruption’[6], was a fundamental form of hysterical expression. Edgar Linton notes that Catherine ‘“has blood on her lips”’[7], a symbol of menstruation and an embodiment of Edgar’s concern of the Other’s uncontrollability. Therefore, rather than occurring via vocalisation which can be silenced, hysteria is communicated through the labial lips of the sexualised female body. Accordingly, as Baudrillard states, since ‘[o]nly the wounded body exists symbolically’[8], hysteria does not employ the schism of masculine language but communicates via the female wound in the hegemonic order ‘that would never heal’[9]. Similarly, pregnancy and childbirth, which also involve the release of transgressive female fluids, further destabilise the patriarchal order. Pregnant women in particular were perceived as threatening owing to their susceptibility to puerperal insanity which, by potentially leading to infanticide, subverted ideological notions of femininity and the nineteenth century family.

For the masculine order the female propensity towards transgressive hysterical physicality provided an excuse for denying women subjectivity. However, since ‘[h]ysteria is associated with women’s exclusion from the sphere of representation’[10] such prohibition became essentially self-fulfilling, promoting the very transgression that it endeavoured to prevent. This is depicted in Jane Eyre when Mrs Reed responds to Jane’s ‘wild, involuntary cry’[11] with an admonition that ‘“until you can speak pleasantly, remain silent.”’[12] As the novel’s plot reveals, restraint serves only to promote a more violent reaction. One such manifestation was the hysterical symptom of choking which was diagnosed by Jorden as Suffocation of the Mother since the capacity for expression was literally asphyxiated.

Female expression was also smothered by psychiatry through a masculine-conceived unconscious that disregarded a hysterical ontology which was unintelligible to the hegemonic order. Rather than attempting to engage with a potentially challenging alternative viewpoint, psychoanalysis instead imprisoned the female by re-inscribing hysteria according to masculine conceptions. As a result, nineteenth century representations of hysteria are ambiguous:

[o]n the one hand, representing woman as an inherently unstable female body authorizes ceaseless medical monitoring and control. But on the other hand, this representation of woman as always requiring control produces her as always already exceeding the control that medicine can excise.[13]

Therefore, by exceeded psychiatric containment hysteria challenged the very possibility of the medical epistemological project:

the language of hysteria forces its investigator to realise he cannot define or identify his subject, and thus it demarcates the limitations of the system of representation that it seeks to classify[14].

Accordingly, as patriarchy found hysterical language incomprehensible its very unintelligibility threatened the stability of the masculine order which attempted to contain it since hysteria emphasised hegemonic limitations.

Such destabilisation and mutual unintelligibility drew attention to semiotic female expression and symbolic masculine discourse as non-unified languages which can exist in isolation. As Julia Kristeva argues, hysterical and non-hysterical languages are both semiotic and symbolic:

[b]ecause the subject is always both semiotic and symbolic, no signifying system he produces can be either “exclusively semiotic or “exclusively” symbolic. And is instead necessarily marked by an indebtedness to both.[15]

Hysterical and masculine languages are thus only differentiated by their ratio of semiotic to symbolic content. Since hysteria is primarily expressed psychosomatically its focus upon the body marks it as predominantly semiotic, whereas medicalisation is symbolic because it externally represents physicality in the form of written and verbal symbols which render the body absent.

When either hysteria or medicalisation is viewed in isolation a disjunction occurs which causes loss of meaning. During psychosomatic communication the hysterical expression of semiotic drives and urges through the body results in a gap between the hysteric and the masculine receiver through which the semiotic drives of the hysteric cannot negotiate. It is in this space between subject and object, between signifier and signified that the meaning of hysteria becomes lost. Just as Virginia Woolf argued that ‘a room of her own’[16] was necessary for writing purely female literature, so too is segregation from masculine society necessary for the hysteric to create a purely female language. However, in doing so the female subject becomes trapped within a room of her own, wherein without a means of directing drives away from her body she is eventually consumed by her hysteria and unable to transmit meaning beyond her own physicality. Ultimately, the nineteenth-century novel portrays ‘women’s carceral condition as her fundamental and final truth’[17] since the critique that the hysteric poses of the masculine system becomes eliminated and re-inscribed when the woman is locked away, shut out of discourse behind Gilman’s suffocating and silencing yellow wallpaper where ‘nobody [can] climb through that pattern – it strangles so.’[18]

Instead, it is only by interrogating both masculine and feminine conceptions and ontological theories of hysteria that a meaningful appreciation of the condition can be attained. Neither language alone is able to adequately communicate female experience within the Victorian era therefore understanding can only be reached through examining their interaction. By doing so it is possible to synthesise a new language which is both male and female, symbolic and semiotic, and thus intelligible in a manner that neither hysteria or medicalisation can be in isolation.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] J. Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1999), p.14

[2] J. Kristeva, ‘Revolution in Poetic Language’, in T. Moi, ed., The Kristeva Reader: Julia Kristeva (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p.103

[3] E. Brontë, Wuthering Heights (London: Penguin Books, 1995), I, chapter 6

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

[5] Brontë, Wuthering Heights, I, chapter 11

[6] S. Shuttleworth, Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p78

[7] Brontë, Wuthering Heights, I, chapter 11

[8] J. Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation – The Body in Theory: Histories of Cultural Materialism, trans. by S. Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), p.114

[9] A. Carter, The Passion of New Eve (London: Virago Press, 2000), p.52

[10] M. Jacobus, Reading Women: Essays in Feminist Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p.29 in, P.M. Logan, Nerves and Narratives: A Cultural History of Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century British Prose (Califonia: University of California Press, 1997), p.9

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

[12] ibid, I, chapter 1

[13] 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.147

[14] E. Bronfen, The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and its Discontents (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998), p.102

[15] Kristeva, ‘Revolution in Poetic Language’, p.93

[16] V. Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London: The Penguin Group, 1945), chapter 1

[17] Gallagher, The Making of the Modern Body, p.122

[18] C.P. Gilman, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ in, D.S. Davies, ed., Short Stories from the Nineteenth Century (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 2000), p.204

The Hysterical Female Subject

18 Aug

The nineteenth century female experience was one of domestic confinement in which the fathers of Victorian paterfamilias exerted sovereignty over their wives and daughters. As ‘[t]he ideal woman was willing to be dependent on men and submissive to them’[1] praise was awarded to those who ‘subordinated themselves totally to the wishes of the master of the household’[2]. Women were therefore encouraged to act in accordance with these conventions of femininity through a process of positive reinforcement to which obedience was fundamental. In this manner the symbolic patriarchal family organised and constrained the female chora, validating only certain forms of expression. Such constraint limited the range of possible, non-symbolic articulation: as Ilza Veith notes, ‘the hysterical symptoms “were modified by the prevailing concept of the feminine ideal”’ [3]. Thus:

in the nineteenth century women were expected to be delicate and vulnerable both physically and emotionally, and this construction of femininity was reflected in the disposition to hysteria[4].

Accordingly, there was a similarity between contemporary ideological notions of the female and that of the hysteric which required extensive policing through medicalisation. Since hysteria was such an amorphous concept, and so closely linked to contemporary ideologies of femininity, the difference between the two became a matter of patriarchal judgement, resting upon the opinion of the physician. For the hegemonic order this ensured that society remained monolithic since ‘social conformity…became an index of sanity’[5] and it was through non-conformity that insanity was adjudged. Thus, via medicalisation and enforced submission patriarchy was able to coerce and govern the forms of socially-sanctioned expression that were available to women. However, through an exploration of the hysteric and the female vampire it will be demonstrated how such certainties of control betray an underlying anxiety concerning the fragility of masculine binaries.

While the Victorian ideology for women of a high socio-economic status was one of domestic felicity, contemporary literature contrastingly depicts the nightmarish lives of house-bound women in which hysteria is a constant spectre. In Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, Lucy Snowe endures mental suffocation during her service to Miss Marchmont, an elderly woman confined by rheumatism to ‘[t]wo hot, close rooms’[6]. Within such stifling residence Lucy states that ‘[a]ll within [her] became narrowed to [her] lot.’[7] Similarly, Lucy flees the Pensionnat de Demoiselles in order to relieve her claustrophobia that is manifested in the house-roof pressing upon her, as ‘crushing as the slab of a tomb’[8]. Likewise, when Emily Brontë’s Catherine Earnshaw is confined by illness to Thrushcross Grange, she suffers from such an intense feeling of captivity that she begs Nelly to ‘“[o]pen the window again wide”’[9] in a desperate attempt to escape onto the vast space of the moor.

When confined indoors women had little contact with the language of masculine society and were consequently denied the intersubjectivity of social interaction. Even within the home itself women were refused vicarious access to patriarchal discourse, exemplified through Jane Eyre who is forbidden to read her cousin’s books. John Reed warns ‘“I’ll teach you to rummage the book-shelves: for they are mine”’[10] before making Jane the target of his possessive anger when he throws a volume across the drawing room. John thereby demonstrates that he is part of a masculine order that sanctions his exclusive ownership and use of such literature. Rather than engaging Jane in reasoned discussion, John instead uses physical violence and the infliction of pain in order to convey his ownership: ‘the volume was flung, it hit me’[11]. Likewise, Emily Brontë signifies how patriarchal discourse restrains and denies the feminised semiotic in Wuthering Heights. When confronted with Catherine Earnshaw’s ghost Mr Lockwood prevents her from entering the shattered window pane by ‘pil[ing] the books up in a pyramid against it’[12], creating a wall of masculine, symbolic language through which the female chora cannot penetrate.

This exclusion of women from linguistic discourse during the Victorian era ‘brought the nervous body and its protean complaints into being’[13] exemplified in the increasing female propensity to hysterical expression. As Elisabeth Bronfen notes, such proclivity is owing to the fact that ‘hysteria exists only insofar as it results from a given network of medical, supernatural, religious, and aesthetic discourses’[14]. However, the corollary is also true – just as the condition is shaped by medical discourse, so too is the nature of that discourse shaped by its Other – the hysterical woman who resists classification. With the growing prominence and canonisation of medical opinion during the nineteenth century, the physician’s increasing preoccupation with, and diagnosis of, hysteria was due to the threat that the condition posed to medical intelligibility. This in turn challenged the masculine, empiricist rationality which underpinned scientific certainty used to justify the entire patriarchal order. Since the hysteric ‘suffered from the lack of a public voice to articulate their economic and sexual oppression’[15], their symptoms ‘seemed like bodily metaphors for [their] silence’[16]. Hysterical women therefore posed a permanent challenge to the epistemological foundation of the Victorian medical project and the values of the society that it reflected.

Through this non-verbal, bodily protest the hysteric’s challenge to medical and epistemological certainties created a dissonance within masculine hegemony whose effect seemed far louder than any linguistic complaint: as Hélène Cixous writes, ‘“[t]he great hysterics have the last speech, they are aphoric”’[17]. While Luce Irigaray states that masculine language excludes the feminine by positing woman as ‘both the subject and the Other…of a closed phallogocentric signifying economy that achieves its totalising goal through the exclusion of the feminine’[18], language cannot exclude that which is not spoken.  It is therefore precisely through being designated Other that the hysteric gains power. By utilising a form of communication that is beyond the masculine definition of language their form of expression cannot be excluded.

However, while patriarchy is unable to prevent such a form of communication, the challenge that it poses to the prevailing order serves as a justification for masculine control. As Cixous writes, ‘the hysteric “makes-believe” the father, plays the father, “makes-believe” the master[19] in the sense that she occupies the role of the Other which they strive to control. Therefore, women in general, and the hysteric in particular, construct masculine society in positing themselves as the negative image, the terrifying, nebulous chaos against which patriarchy is self-defined: ‘without the hysteric there’s no father…without the hysteric, no master, no analyst, no analysis!’[20]

This self-definition is achieved through the utilisation of a patriarchal language which also functions as a means of controlling the female Other within a closed masculine signifying economy. [21] Inherent in forms of communication is the automatic positing of subject and object: if self and Other are absent, the entire universe becomes a single undifferentiated entity. It is owing to the distinction between self and Other that communication becomes necessary. For Kristeva, the awareness of such a separation is termed the ‘thetic phase’[22], occurring at the mirror stage during which the subject acknowledges their distinction from surrounding objects and their desire to communicate with the separate object world. However, within such a form of communication one party is active in its ability to posit, while the other remains passive and classifiable. Therefore, control of communication is vital to the masculine order as power lies in the ability to resist categorisation and to position the female as Other. Since the subject becomes an active agent with the ability to place the Other participant within the submissive, signified position, patriarchy is able to maintain its hegemony by controlling language and ensuring that it remains the subject with the authority to posit and resist being posited.

However, in a parody of Kristeva’s mirror phase, the characters of nineteenth century literature frequently fail to recognise their own reflection, thereby rejecting the mirror phase of thetic communication and circumventing masculine control of language. When gazing in the looking-glass in the red-room at Gateshead Jane Eyre speaks of a ‘strange little figure there gazing at me’[23] and on her wedding day at Thornfield sees ‘a robed and veiled figure, so unlike [her] usual self that it seemed almost the image of a stranger.’[24] Charlotte Brontë herself described her own nervousness ‘as a “horrid phantom”’[25], akin to the reflected ghost that Jane says ‘has the effect of a real spirit’[26], and to the ‘“face”’ [27] that Catherine Earnshaw perceives in the black press at Thrushcross Grange. These phantom reflections are the characters’ Other, part of, yet unrecognisable to, the subject.

For characters unable to recognise their own reflection, expression cannot be thetic according to Kristevean theory as self and Other cannot be delimited without the mirror stage. Accordingly, in creating an idiosyncratic language the hysteric becomes both subject and object, producing and receiving her own communication. Consequently, the hysteric’s entire discourse becomes self-contained, directed towards her seemingly alien mirror image which functions as her Other. Hysterical language therefore becomes infinitely reflective, causing the abyss and hollow realm of Lucy’s ‘hollow-eyed vision’[28] and Jane’s vision in the red-room mirror whose depths are involuntarily explored by her ‘fascinated glance’ [29].

Since Kristeva theorised that the symbolic ‘is a social effect of the relation to the other’[30], hysterical discourse transcends social order due to its pre-symbolic nature. The hysterical woman is therefore independent and does not require an Other in order to define her identity. Yet this poses a problem as a language that is reflected back upon the subject is only intelligible to the self. Consequently, hysterical discourse cannot be a form of universal communication, instead creating a prison within which the female subject becomes confined.

This relationship between hysteria and mirror image is also explored through the figure of the female vampire who, casting no reflection, has no Other either in masculine society or through her own likeness. Therefore, when Jane Eyre sees Bertha’s ‘“visage and features quite distinctly in the dark oblong glass”’ her face is described as ‘“fearful and ghastly”’[31], reminding Jane ‘“[o]f the foul German spectre – the Vampyre”’[32], a creature who casts no reflection, merely staring into a void, unable to ‘Other’ herself. The vampire’s absence of reflection therefore destabilised patriarchal binaries as for characters such as Lucy Westenra there is neither self nor Other, masculine nor feminine, and consequently both hysterical and symbolic communication are impossible.

Therefore, patriarchy attempted to prevent female transgression through the medium of masculine language and the maintenance of linguistic control, central to which was the enshrining of medical opinion and the authority of the physician. However, through physical expression and a rejection of the thetic phase fundamental to masculine symbolic language the hysteric was able to destabilise the subject/object binary and the medical opinion by which it was supported. This challenged Victorian ideological conceptions of feminine passivity that complimented masculine assertiveness, thereby reflecting the certainty of patriarchal power back upon the masculine subject. Such fear of the ‘unfeminine’ woman reaches its apotheosis in the figure of the female vampire who, rather than mirroring the masculine gaze, denies the masculine subject the possibility of seeing a reflection of his own power and effect through the female Other. In doing so, the hysteric, and in particular the female vampire, emphasises ‘[t]he radical dependency of the masculine subject on the female “Other”’ and thereby ‘exposes his autonomy as illusory.’[33] In casting no reflection, the vampire draws attention to the irrelevance of the gaze, not only by challenging masculine authority but also showing its absence.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] D. Gorham, The Victorian Girl and the Feminine Ideal, (London: Croom Helm, 1982), p.4

[2] A.S. Wohl, ed., The Victorian Family, Structures and Stresses (London: Croom Helm, 1978), p.63

[3] I. Veith, Hysteria: The History of a Disease (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), p.209 in, E. Bronfen, The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and its Discontents (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998), p.225

[4] ibid, p.209

[5] S. Shuttleworth, Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p.35

[6] C. Brontë, Villette (London: Penguin Books, 2004), chapter 4

[7] ibid, chapter 4

[8] ibid, chapter 15

[9] E. Brontë, Wuthering Heights (London: Penguin Books, 1995), chapter 12

[10] C. Brontë, Jane Eyre (London: Penguin Books, 1996), I, chapter 1

[11] ibid, I, chapter 1

[12] Brontë, Wuthering Heights, I, chapter 3

[13] P.M. Logan, Nerves and Narratives: A Cultural History of Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century British Prose (Califonia: University of California Press, 1997), p.2

[14] Bronfen, The Knotted Subject, p.102

[15] E. Showalter, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (London, Picador, 1997), p.55

[16] ibid, p.55

[17] ‘Castration or Deception?’ in, Signs 7 (1981), pp.36-55 in, P.M. Logan, Nerves and Narratives: A Cultural History of Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century British Prose (Califonia; University of California Press, 1997), p.9

[18] J. Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity ­(London: Routledge, 1999), p.14

[19] Bronfen, The Knotted Subject, preface

[20] ibid, preface

[21] Butler, Gender Trouble, p.14

[22] J. Kristeva, ‘Revolution in Poetic Language’, in T. Moi, ed., The Kristeva Reader: Julia Kristeva (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p.98

[23] Brontë, Jane Eyre, I, chapter 2

[24] ibid, II, chapter 11

[25] T.J. Wise and J.A. Symington, The Bronte’s: Their Lives, Friendships and Correspondence, 4 vols (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1933), III, p.8 to Ellen Nussey, 14th July 1849 in, S. Shuttleworth, Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p.31

[26] Brontë, Jane Eyre, I, chapter 2

[27] Brontë, Wuthering Heights, I, chapter 12

[28] Brontë, Villette, chapter 4

[29] Brontë, Jane Eyre, I, chapter 2

[30] Kristeva, ‘Revolution in Poetic Language’, pp.96-7

[31] Brontë, Jane Eyre, I, chapter 25

[32] Brontë, Jane Eyre, I, chapter 25

[33] Butler, Gender Trouble, pp.xxvii-xxviii

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 <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0009-8353%28199512%2F199601%2991%3A2%3C153%3APVOT%27U%3E2.0.CO%3B2-%23> [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

The Invention of Anorexia

14 Aug

Prior to its diagnosis, anorexia, or loss of appetite, had been thought to be a symptom of another, primary disease. It was given the status of an independent condition by the eminent physician Dr William Withey Gull, who asserted that anorexia was distinct from the weight loss that resulted from a separate disorder such as organ disease or tuberculosis. Gull first introduced anorexia to the British Medical Association in 1868, referring to it as ‘apepsia hysterica’:

[a]t present our diagnosis is mostly one of inference, from our knowledge of the liability of the several organs to particular lesions: thus we avoid the error of supposing the presence of mesenteric disease in young women emaciated to the last degree through hysteric apepsia by our knowledge of the latter affection, and by the absence of tubercular disease elsewhere.[1]

In his footnote to hysteric apepsia, Gull writes that ‘I have ventured to apply this term to the state indicated, in the hope of directing more attention to it.’[2]  He did just this since five years subsequent to this address, on 24th October 1873, Gull presented a lecture to the Clinical Society of London, an elite group of medical consultants, entitled ‘Anorexia Hysterica (Apepsia Hysterica)’ in which the 1868 diagnosis of ‘apepsia’ was replaced by ‘anorexia’. Gull explained this substitution since ‘“what food is taken, except in the extreme stages of the disease, is well digested.”’[3] A paper based on this lecture, ‘Anorexia Nervosa (Apepsia Hysterica, Anorexia Hysterica)’, was published the following year. In this report, the original title of the lecture, ‘Anorexia Hysterica’, was altered to ‘Anorexia Nervosa’ because Gull had come to believe that anorexia was nervous, rather than hysterical in origin given that ‘hysteria’ implied a gendered disease affecting only women:

we might call the state hysterical without committing ourselves to the etymological value of the word, or maintaining that the subjects of it have the common symptoms of hysteria. I prefer, however, the more general term “nervosa,” since the disease occurs in males as well as females, and is probably rather central than peripheral.[4]

Two years after Gull’s publication, a paper delivered at the Royal College of Physicians was printed in The British Medical Journal that offered a detailed description of the symptoms of anorexia nervosa, concurring with Gull’s earlier diagnosis:

the appetite fails, food is not taken, and the body wastes to an extreme degree, the countenance has a distressed appearance, the eyes are sunken, the cheeks hollow, and the whole system impoverished: the body has fed upon itself, and all superfluous fat has become absorbed.[5]

Similarly in France in April 1873, Dr Ernest Charles Lasègue published ‘De l’anorexie hystérique’ in the Archives Générales de Médicine, in which anorexia was described as ‘“hysteria of the gastric center”’.[6] Although Lasègue believed that the condition derived from hysteria, ‘anorexia’ (lack of appetite) is used in place of ‘hysterical inanition’ since he states that anorexia ‘“refers to a phenomenology which is less superficial, more delicate, and also more medical.”’[7] In 1884, however, T Clifford Allbutt opposed the idea of a hysterical cause owing to the variety of symptoms produced by anorexia. Based upon six cases collected prior to the reports from Gull and Lasègue, Allbutt found that in some instances, ‘there is great pain on the ingestion of food; in others, there is no pain, but simply a distaste for food.’[8]

In his account, Lasègue identified three stages of l’anorexie hystérique. During stage one, he reports that the patient experiences physical sensations, a ‘“vague sensation of fullness” and ‘“suffering after commencement of the repast.”’’[9] Certain foods are omitted from the diet and there is evidence of hyperactive behaviour. In stage two there is physical deterioration, yet the patient becomes the centre of attention owing to her food refusal and is thereby pleased with her condition and does not wish to ‘get better’. This is what Lasègue termed ‘“pathological contentment”’.[10] In the final stage, he noted severe emaciation and amenorrhea and ‘“[t]he young girl begins to be anxious from the sad appearance of those who surround her, and for the first time her self-satisfied indifference receives a shock”’.[11] From this report, it can be seen that since the anorexic girl is respondent to others, her family and friends act as a reflection of her own physical condition. The patient’s body image becomes distorted to such a degree that she only realises the extent of her emaciation when others exhibit signs of alarm.

By classifying the behaviour and symptoms of anorexia, Gull transformed an existing condition into a disease. Taking control of the patient’s volitional self-starvation, he translated the behaviour as a ‘mental perversity’[12] subject to treatment, indicating his wish to regulate undesirable female conduct by diagnosing it as an abnormality. This objective to manage disease is evident in Gull’s lectures and writings, the language of which is couched in terms of control. In his ‘Address on the Internal Collective Investigation of Disease’ delivered in 1884, he states that medical investigation requires a ‘combination of exact observation and record, with refined criticism and analysis’.[13] Meticulous in his diagnosis, Gull advised his fellow physicians that:

we must, in many instances, have the life-histories of the parents or more remote ancestors, before we can fully unravel the course of irregular menstruation, hysteria, anorexia, uterine flexions, and the like.[14]

Gull stressed the need for medical practitioners to carry out diagnoses in a uniform manner, in order that illnesses could be systematically classified and the problem of disease ‘settled’. Allbutt also suggests a way in which control should be exercised, especially in the case of anorexia which displays ‘objective symptoms’ that can be measured, treated and brought within patriarchal power: ‘[t]his anorexia nervosa is no whimsical malady, no inconsistent nor irregular indisposition, but is a definite complex, consisting, in part, of objective symptoms.’[15]

Thwarting Gull’s desire for a neat and methodical diagnosis, however, anorexia resisted classification. Firstly, its cause was problematic. Allbutt writes that ‘[s]ometimes, the distaste has taken its origin in a mere shirking of food – in the fear of growing stout, or in a nobler avoidance of self-indulgence’,[16] while Lasègue believed that anorexia occurred ‘as the result of some “emotional cause” which the patient might either “avow or conceal.”’[17] These emotional causes outlined by Lasègue included ‘inappropriate romantic expectations, blocked educational or social opportunities, struggles with parents.’[18] Adding to this catalogue of possible origins for the condition, in an 1888 issue of the Lancet Gull attributed ‘perversion of the “ego” being the cause and determining the course of the malady’,[19] crediting his patients’ refusal to eat to a psychological, rather than a physical affliction:

[t]hat mental states may destroy appetite is notorious, and it will be admitted that young women at the ages named [sixteen to twenty-three] are specially obnoxious to mental perversity.[20]

A decade later, William Smoult Playfair asserted that lack of appetite is caused by neurasthenia: ‘“the excessive disgust for food, which is so striking a feature, is only one of many coexisting indications of a profound alteration of the nervous system.”’[21]

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] W.W. Gull, ‘Clincal Observation in Relation to Medicine in Modern Times’, Address dekuvered at a meeting of the British Meidcal Association at Oxford, August 7th, 1868, in Theodore Dyke Acland (ed.), A Collection of the Published Writings of William Withey Gull (n.p., September 2010), p.54

[2] W.W. Gull, ‘Clincal Observation in Relation to Medicine in Modern Times’, Address dekuvered at a meeting of the British Meidcal Association at Oxford, August 7th, 1868, in Theodore Dyke Acland (ed.), A Collection of the Published Writings of William Withey Gull (n.p., September 2010), p.54

[3] W.W. Gull, ‘Clinical society of London, Friday October 24 Sir William Gull read a paper on anorexia hysterica (apepsia hysterica)’, Medical Times and Gazette, 2, (1873), 534-6, in Vandereycken and Deth, From Fasting Saints to Anorexic Girls

[4] W.W. Gull, ‘Anorexia Nervosa’ (apepsia hysterica, anorexia hysterica), Transactions of the Clinical Society of the London 7 (1874), pp.25-6, p.25, in Brumberg, Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), p.118

[5] S.O. Habershon, ‘Lumleian Lectures on the Pathologies of the Pneumogastric Nerve (Concluded)’, The British Medical Journal vol.1, no.805 (Jun 3, 1876), pp.681-682, BMJ Publishing Group, p.681 [accessed 30.06.10] <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25237255&gt;

[6] Ernest Charles Lasègue, ‘On Hysterical Anorexia’, Medical Times and Gazette (September 6, 1873), pp.265-266, Original French report in Archives Générales de Médicine (April 1873), p.266, in Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Fasting Girls, p.125

[7] Ernest Charles Lasègue, ‘De l’anorexie hystérique’, Archives Générales de Médicine, 21, (1873), 385-403. Translation: ‘On hysterical anorexia’, Medical Times and Gazette (2), 1873, 265-6, 367-9, in Van dreycken and Deth, From Fasting Saints to Anorexic Girls, p.157

[8] T. Clifford Allbutt , ‘The Gulstonian Lectures, on Neuroses of the Viscera’, The British Medical Journal vol.1 no.1212 (March 22, 1884), pp.543-547 BMJ Publishing Group, p.546 [accessed 30.06.10] <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25265955&gt;

[9] Lasègue, ‘On Hysterical Anorexia’, in Brumberg, Fasting Girls, p.127

[10] Lasègue, ‘On Hysterical Anorexia,’ in Brumberg, Fasting Girls, p.130

[11] ibid, p.131

[12] W.W. Gull, ‘Anorexia Nervosa’, p.25, in Brumberg, Fasting Girls, p.118

[13] William W. Gull, ‘An Address on the Internal Collective Investigation of Disease’, The British Medical Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1233 (Aug. 16, 1884), pp.305-308 published by BMJ Publishing Group, p.305 [accessed 30.06.10] <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25267200&gt;

[14] Gull, ‘An Address on the Collective Investigation of Disease’, p.143

[15] Allbutt, ‘The Gulstonian Lectures, on Neuroses of the Viscera’, p.546

[16] ibid>

[17] Ernest Charles Lasègue, ‘On Hysterical Anorexia,’ Medical Times and Gazette (September 6, 1873), pp.265-266, Original French report in Archives Générales de Médicine (April 1873),  Brumberg, Fasting Girls, p.127

[18] ibid

[19] W. Gull, ‘Clinical Notes’, The Lancet, March 17 (1888), p.517

[20] Gull, ‘Anorexia Nervosa’, p.25, in Brumberg, Fasting Girls, p.118

[21] William Smoult Playfair, “Note on the So-Called Anorexia Nervosa,” Lancet (April 28, 1888), p.818, in Brumberg, Fasting Girls, p.147

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough