Tag Archives: Victorian

Edgar Allan Poe and Premature Burial

8 Nov

During the nineteenth century, there was widespread anxiety concerning the inability to distinguish between life and death. As a result of these fears, The London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial was founded in 1896.[1]

The society took measures to prevent live burials such as attaching strings ‘to the fingers of the corpses…[which were] attached to bells’[2] and placing bodies in ‘waiting rooms’ to ensure that they were dead, a certainty only when the body exhibited signs of decomposition.

Conditions that confused the states of animation and death included catalepsy, trance and deep sleep. Catalepsy is defined as ‘an “exaggerated lethargy”…during which time no medical test could detect the vital spark.’[3] This condition is portrayed by Edgar Allan Poe in ‘The Premature Burial’ (1844), wherein Mademoiselle Victorine who ‘had been buried alive’ is subsequently ‘aroused by the caresses of her lover from the lethargy which had been mistaken for death.’[4]

In Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, Lady Madeline is enclosed alive within her coffin, the narrator relating

[w]e have put her living in the tomb!…I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow coffin.[1]

Upon breaking free from her coffin, Lady Madeline stands enshrouded with ‘blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame.’[2] Madeline’s bloody exertions and subsequent escape from her tomb incite horror since, rather than remaining a passive corpse, the Lady forcefully resists incarceration.


[1] E.A. Poe, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, in Tales of Mystery and Imagination (London: Everyman, 1993), pp.137-55, p.154

[2] Poe, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, pp.137-55, p.155

[3] Behlmer,Grave Doubts’, p. 206

[4] E.A. Poe, ‘The Premature Burial’, in Tales of Mystery and Imagination (London: Everyman, 1993), pp.290-303, p.292


[1] G.K. Behlmer,Grave Doubts: Victorian Medicine, Moral Panic, and the Signs of Death’, Journal of British Studies, 42 (2003) <http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&xri:pqil:res_ver=0.2&res_id=xri:lion&rft_id=xri:lion:ft:abell:R03565047:0> [accessed 16th May, 2008], p.206

[2] J. Stevens Curl, The Victorian Celebration of Death (London: David and Charles, 1972), p.177

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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 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 Cult of Invalidism

14 Aug

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

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

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


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

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

 

Shall Women Eat Food?

14 Aug

Women’s appetite was remarked upon in the mid nineteen-hundreds by The Lady’s Newspaper which stated that gluttony was not altogether a male sin:

[h]ow often have we beheld it in the Park carriages rolling by, containing enormous women, bursting with plethora, in whose rubicund countenances the awful signs of habitual hot luncheons appeared![2]

Yet, while it was possible for women to eat as much as men, appetite was gendered and in a woman, ought to be suppressed. Female corpulence was perceived to be disgusting and debilitating, as portrayed by The Lady’s Newspaper’s description of ‘the once slim and elegant Laura Matilda’ who now ‘sits in mute obesity, her perceptions dulled with satiety, and a sullen scorn upon her heavy lip’.[3] Women who ate large amounts were not only perceived to be mute, dull and sullen, they were also regarded as masculine, as illustrated in The Beth Book. Beth’s music-mistress is a ‘“great fat old thing”’ who ‘“likes eating”’. Her greediness is apparent to the pupils since meal times are a public display in which she ‘“gloats over things, and she’s quite put out if she doesn’t get exactly what she wants.”’ The mistress’ appetite is described in animalistic terms, as Rosa calls her a ‘“greedy old cat!”’, while her eating habits make her ‘“just like a man”’, earning her the nickname of ‘“Old Tom.”’[4]

While eating large quantities was considered a masculine trait, an 1889 publication of Fun took the issue even further in an article entitled ‘“Shall Women Eat Food?”’ where it is questioned whether women should consume at all. In this debate, consumption is deemed ‘strange and abnormal’ for the ‘fair, delicate, refined woman’. Eating is associated with robustness and coarseness, characteristics which the Victorian woman should not display. It was so much the norm to follow this etiquette, however, that the author of this piece does not fear that women will display signs of hunger since there is:

a pure sweet instinct born in the feminine breast which shuns with horror and loathing the coarse and the repulsive, and we may trust to that instinct to teach woman that to eat is not her province.[5]

Since it is ‘not her province’ to eat food, there is a prescribed amount that women must eat and a way in which meals should be eaten. The author assures the reader that ‘we need not look forward to a calamitous day when our mothers, sisters and wives will tear, rend and devour sustenance voluntarily descending to the level of the wolf and hyena.’ The animalistic language of this article portrays the appetitive female as a carnivorous beast, something that readers would certainly wish to avoid. It is also made clear that a woman who eats more than she should will not only risk ‘degrading [her] own sweet nature’, but also ‘lose the affection and respect of her husband’ and alienate herself from ‘the trust, affection and respect of men.’[6] The undignified aspect of the female appetite is repeated in a conduct manual written in 1838 by a mother to her daughter, wherein she writes ‘[n]othing can be more degrading to a rational being, than to be the slave of an appetite’.[7] Once more, appetite is associated with an irrational, animalistic state. Self-control over bodily desire is thus designated as a rational quality that will gain the respect of the social order.

Continuing the view that a display of appetite is an act of degradation, eating often necessitates conduct that may be considered unsuitable for public sight. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, Mary Smith speaks of the ‘curious proceeding’ involved in eating oranges. Cutting the orange is not an option for the women of Cranford since the juice runs out ‘nobody knew where’.[8] This uncontrollable juice represents the insatiable female appetite that might be betrayed at any moment, should there be a failure of dining etiquette. Consuming an orange proves difficult since it is impolite to suck, the maternal and sexual image that it provokes being inappropriate for public view: ‘sucking…was in fact the only way of enjoying oranges; but then there was the unpleasant association with a ceremony frequently gone through by little babies.’[9]  The only option left for the Cranford ladies is to ‘withdraw to the privacy of their own rooms, to indulge in sucking oranges’,[10] suggesting an almost masturbatory pleasure, a secret guilty process to eating.

Consumption was also problematic because it called attention to unpleasant bodily functions such as digestion and defecation. The vulgarity of appetite is portrayed in Wives and Daughters wherein the hour at which people are invited to dinner is of utmost important:

How ask people to tea at six, who dined at that hour? How, when they refused cake and sandwiches at half-past eight, how induce other people who were really hungry to commit a vulgarity before those calm and scornful eyes?[11]

In order to avoid the scornful eyes of fellow diners, women eat prior to a public meal, thus creating the appearance that they are not hungry. Women thus trained their appetites so that they did not exhibit signs of hunger, especially in public. In The Ladies’ Treasury (1869), one gentleman writes that women ‘wish to appear in the eyes of their male admirers as light, ethereal, angelic creatures, who are scarcely subject to the vulgar necessities of hunger.’[12] In ‘A Story, by Mrs. C.L. Balfour’ in The Lady’s Newspaper (1861), one character remarks that ‘“I am like some delicate ladies, who make a good dinner at luncheon, and then have an opportunity of etherealizing at the dinner-table”’[13] If a woman does not eat at all at the dinner table, however, it raises suspicion of secret binges prior to the meal:

[w]e do not like to see a young lady ignore our food, or turn from the proffered wing of chicken, albeit with an air of the prettiest disgust. That always, to us at least, engenders suspicion of previous banquets, of surreptitious luncheons, of forenoon indulgences in cakes and hot jelly, it may be with a flavour of maraschino. We see at once that there is a falsity in our sweet neighbour’s performance, that she is acting a part deliberately studied.[14]

Such a ‘false performance’ is given by Mrs Gibson in Wives and Daughters:

Then there was lunch, when everyone was merry and hungry, excepting the hostess, who was trying to train her middayappetite into the genteelest of all ways.[15]

Mrs Gibson wishes to avoid the ‘scornful eyes’ of her fellow diners, yet wants her guests to notice her small appetite and praise her feminine delicacy. Mrs Gibson thought that Dr Nicholls ‘would give her the proper civil amount of commiseration for her ailments, which every guest ought to bestow upon a hostess who complains of her delicacy of health.’[16] Yet, she is comically undone by the very man who she had hoped would call attention to her fragile health and refined appetite as the doctor sees through her façade, instead ‘recommending her to try the coarsest viands on the table; and, at last, he told her if she could not fancy the cold beef to try a little with pickled onions.[17]

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

[1] ‘Food and Feeding’, Hearth and Home: An Illustrated Weekly Journal for Gentlewomen (London, England), issue 174, 13th Sept, 1894

[2] ‘The Fair Sex and their Diet’, The Lady’s Newspaper (London, England), 3rd Jan, 1857, iss 523

[3] ‘The Fair Sex and their Diet’, The Lady’s Newspaper (London, England), 3rd Jan, 1857, iss 523

[4] S. Grand, The Beth Book (London: Virago, 1980), p.288

[5] ‘Women, Tobacco, Food, Perpendicularity, and Other Matters’ Fun (London,England)23 Oct 1889 issue 1276

[6] ‘Women, Tobacco, Food, Perpendicularity, and Other Matters’ Fun (London,England)23 Oct 1889 issue 1276

[7] from ‘Female Excellence, or Hints to Daughters, by a mother for their use from the Time of Leaving School till their Settlement in Life’ (London, 1838) Bodleian Library, p.134 http://www.gender.amdigital.co.uk/contents/document-detail.aspx?sectionid=62 [accessed 6th March, 2009] (53)

[8] Cranford, p.26

[9] Cranford, p.26

[10] Cranford, p.26

[11] Gaskell, Wives and Daughters, p.462

[12] ‘The Wasp Waist’, The Ladies’ Treasury (London, England) 1st Nov, 1869, p.71

[13] ‘Tangle, A Story of Life’s Perplexities’ The Lady’s Newspaper London England 28th September 1861, p. 198, issue 770

[14] ‘The Fair Sex and their Diet’, The Lady’s Newspaper (London, England), 3rd Jan, 1857, iss 523

[15] Gaskell, Wives and Daughters, pp.340-1

[16] Gaskell, Wives and Daughters, pp.340-1

[17] Gaskell, Wives and Daughters, pp.340-1

Is Tight-Lacing Injurious?

14 Aug

In 1890 an article published in the Lancet warned of death from tight-lacing, arguing that its effects ‘cannot but be hurtful’ as ‘almost every important organ is subjected to cramping pressure’.[1] The fatal consequences of respiratory constraint are portrayed by contemporary literature in the case of Snow White, whose wicked step mother threatens to ‘“lace [her] properly for once.”’[2] To lace her ‘properly’ according to the sadistic dimensions of the tiny Victorian ‘wasp-waist’ causes near death by suffocation as ‘the old woman laced so quickly and so tightly that Snow White lost her breath and fell down as if dead.’[3] Objecting to the practice of tight-lacing, the Lancet warned that its dangers ‘should be noted by these foolish persons whose false taste and vanity have made them suffering devotees of a custom so injurious.’[4]

In a Punch article entitled ‘Is Tight-Lacing Injurious?’ (1870), the importance of a wasp-waist is discussed by women who believe that because ‘fashion had revived the custom of tight-lacing, ladies were obliged to cultivate a fashionable figure.’[5] The phrase, ‘obliged’ discloses that tight-lacing was not a volitional practice, but a social prescription that women must follow in order to remain in vogue. A small waist, however, was achieved at the expense of every day comforts, such as the satisfaction gained from eating. In an edition of the magazine published in the previous year, one correspondent, ‘A Victim’, writes that despite her enjoyment of the admiration that accompanies her tightly-laced figure:

stays are a great torture, and deprive one of a number of small comforts and enjoyments, not to mention one so vulgar as enjoying a nice dinner, which one has no room to swallow when one’s squeezed to sixteen inches.[6]

This woman’s longing to satisfy her appetite reveals that her motive for tight-lacing is not slenderness alone, but because she would ‘rather die than dress out of the fashion’.[7] Fun (1889) also points to the sacrifice that the wasp-waisted woman must make in order to maintain her figure:

ELLA had a little waist,

She could eat no dinner,

For she was so tightly laced,

Space was not within her.[8]

Practitioners of tight-lacing were unable to enjoy food, Miss Tucker informing that ‘the worst of wearing a tight dress was that it sadly took away one’s appetite…Now, this was a great misery, for she was fond of eating. Still, she had rather give up her custards than her corset.’[9] Moonshine (1887) reveals that reducing one’s waist to fifteen inches not only reduces appetite but also leads to ‘squeezing’, ‘pinches’ and ‘awful indigestion’.[10] In addition to these ailments, Miss Lovelace’s tight stays cause her to ‘[faint] at the dinner table’[11] and, ‘after eating a good dinner,’ Mrs M. Bonpoint ‘was frequently obliged to have her laces cut, to save herself from fainting.’[12]

Numerous contemporary periodicals opposed the practice of tight-lacing, not only pointing to the potential for causing physical harm, but the financial cost of such injury and ill health. John Bull (1848) correlates a tightly-laced figure with lack of wellbeing, stating ‘[w]henever you see a small waist, think how much health is wasted.’[13] Use of the term ‘waste’ allowed for puns to be made upon the tightly-laced ‘waist’, further demonstrated by the EDM (1866) that ‘look[s] upon every one of these little waists as a great waste of good sound health and long life.’[14] Waste implies the (mis)usage of a commodity in which women’s health was perceived as a patriarchal possession that could be lost through the mismanagement of female volition: an unhealthy body could not produce children. This concept of wasted health as explicitly connected with financial loss is observed in Punch (1857), which states that ‘[i]n the shadow of a small waist may be seen a large doctor’s bill and the outline of a coffin.’[15] Arguing against the wasp-waist, one author of Punch (1863) writes ‘[w]hen a man has the good fortune to get hold of a girl’s waist, he likes to feel it soft and yielding, and not buckramed and bone-stiffened’, since ‘a wife who has this latter proves a dear one to her husband.’[16] Slenderness and fashion are unnecessary costs to a husband who views his wife solely in material terms. This is reflected in the language of the article since a man’s good ‘fortune’ in marrying a woman with a narrow waist is reversed when his wife is revealed to be an object that will cost him ‘dear’.

In addition to the financial cost of ‘these pinchings in’,[17] an 1866 issue of the EDM points to the ‘shocking and diseased state of the internal organs connected with a small and taper waist.’[6] In descriptions of tightly-laced women, emphasis is placed upon its resulting unnatural and deformed appearance. The Hull Packet and Humber Mercury (1829) remarks upon the unsightly spectacle to be seen at ‘the fashionable promenade in Kensington Gardens’, where there are ‘a number of pale spectres, red…only as to the nose, misshaped like ill-trussed fowls at the breast; and describing the figure of S with their spines.’[18]

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] John Bull, issue 1 (London,England),14th October, 1848, p. 665

[2] The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, issue 21 (London,England),1st September, 1866, p.273

[3] Punch (London,England),4th July, 1857

[4] ‘Fashionable Suicide’, Punch, p.123

[5] The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine (1866), p.273

[6] The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, (1866), p.273

[7] Anon., ‘Tight-Lacing’, The Hull Packet and Humber Mercury, issue 2332 (Hull, England) 28th July, 1829

[8] C. Brontë, The Professor (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1994), p.76

[9] Anon., ‘Death from Tight-Lacing’, The Lancet, issue 135 (1890), p.1816

[10] Grimm Brothers, ‘Little Snow White’, in Complete Fairy Tales (London: Routledge, 2006), p.217

[11] Grimm, ‘Little Snow White’, p.217

[12] ‘Death from Tight-Lacing’, Lancet (1890), p.1816

[13] Anon., ‘Is Tight-Lacing Injurious?, Punch (London,England),7th May, 1870, p.186

[14] ‘The Torments of Tight-Lacing’, Punch (1869)

[15] ‘The Torments of Tight-Lacing’, Punch (1869)

[16] ‘Ella Had a Little Waist’, Fun, issue 1256 (London, England), 5th June 1889, p.241

[17] ‘Is Tight-Lacing Injurious?’, Punch (1870), p.186

[18] ‘Death by Inches’, Moonshine (1887)