Hysterical Fictions: Mid-Nineteenth-Century Medical Constructions of Hysteria and the Fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Jun 13, 2013 | Articles

Mid-Victorian constructions of hysteria were defined by inconsistency and contradiction. ((Although the main sources for my historical material are nineteenth-century medical treatises and journals, a number of interesting studies on hysteria have appeared in recent years including, most notably, Showalter The Female Malady, Showalter Hystories, Micale, and Veith. On hysteria and Victorian literature, see both Small, and Wood. My definition of “hysterial fictions” as texts both fictional and non-fictional that engage with Victorian medical constructions of hysteria through thematic interest, form and motivation, contrasts with Mary Poovey’s use of the term “hysterical text.” With reference to Jane Eyre, Poovey (141) argues that “[b]ecause there was no permissible plot in the nineteenth century for a woman’s anger […] the body of the text symptomatically acts out what cannot make its way into the psychologically realist narrative,” namely Jane’s aggression towards other characters in the novel.)) The period’s medical writers would often categorise and diagnose the condition by process of elimination, explaining what it was not rather than what it was. In their influential treatises on insanity of the 1830s, for example, both Jean Étienne Esquirol (149, 151, 162) and James Cowles Prichard (157) addressed the issue by differentiating the condition from epilepsy. In 1864, Frederick Skey (32), one of the era’s main specialists in the area, admitted in reference to one of his patients: “I had no doubt whatever that it would prove to be a case of hysteria. It appeared obvious that it must be so, simply because it was most improbable that it could be any other disease.” Psychiatric accounts of specific symptoms would similarly follow this method of discrimination by characterising the hysterical state as a deviation from standard modes of behaviour or an excess of normative levels of feeling. In a lecture “On the Pathology and Treatment of Hysteria,” delivered in 1866, Julius Althaus claimed that:

All symptoms of hysteria have their prototype in those vital actions by which grief, terror, disappointment, and other painful emotions and affections, are manifested under ordinary circumstances, and which become signs of hysteria as soon as they attain a certain degree of intensity. […] Tell [a] woman suddenly that the house is on fire, or that she has lost a nearrelation, and you may be sure to observe some of or all the following symptoms. She perceives a feeling of constriction in the epigastrium, oppression on the chest, and palpitations of the heart; a lump seems to rise in her throat and gives a feeling of suffocation; she loses the power over her legs, so that she is for the moment unable to move; and she wrings the hands in a spasmodic manner. (Althaus, 245)

Seven years previously, another physician, W. Camps, had written of the condition in the following way:

There is observed in such an increased susceptibility to impressions, a great rapidity of movements. […] There supervene[s] excessive restlessness of the body generally, so that, when out of bed the patient [is] almost always in bodily action, seldom or never sitting, frequently not even when at meals; in motion whilst standing, and very frequently walking hurriedly about in various apartments of the house. (Camps, 234)

Following the trend set by Esquirol and Prichard’s theories of partial and obsession-based psychological disorders earlier in the century, mid-Victorian definitions of hysteria like these reveal a central preoccupation with excessive and fragmented forms of behaviour. In 1855, James Davey combined hysteria with “monomania” – Esquirol’s term for the mental condition in which the individual is excessively fixated on a single object – to coin the hybrid term “hysteromania.” Davey noted that “no class of patients manifest a more continuous and perverse moral sense than this one” (675). Although Davey’s term never entered into scientific or popular currency, it is nevertheless illustrative of how the Victorian concept of hysteria was heavily influenced by the era’s psychiatric engagements with the idea of immoderation. Clinical attempts to describe the symptoms and nature of the condition in this way also reveal that a metonymic connection existed between its symptomatology and the hysterical mind itself; both are distinguished as fragmentary, manifold in variety and changeable. Althaus, for example, noticed the condition’s “infinite variety of symptoms,” adding:

We find that their multitude and apparent incongruity have perplexed and bewildered observers […] Rivière called hysteria not a simple, but a thousandfold disease. Sydenham asserted that the forms of Proteus and the colours of the chameleon were not more various than the divers aspects under which hysteria presented itself; and Hofmann said that hysteria was not a disease, but a host of diseases. (Althaus, 245)

The disorder’s medical “observers” thus mimicked the pathological status of their patients in becoming “perplexed” and “bewildered” by the protean nature of the “thousandfold disease.” In this article, I argue that such multiplicity and incongruity is essential to understanding Victorian medical classifications of hysteria. Recent studies of the Victorian medical treatment of women have tended to interpret that “treatment” as providing the male population with an alternative method of regulating women. ((Showalter’s The Female Malady is a prime example, but see also Moscucci.)) By promoting an idea of the “demon medical profession,” such interpretations, I argue, are too simplistic and hardly begin to appreciate the complexity of the nineteenth century’s clinical examinations of femininity. I aim to show, for example, how clinical accounts of hysteria, in particular, expressed a degree of dissatisfaction with the social marginalization of women and a genuine desire to treat a condition that they perceived as real. These same texts, however, simultaneously supported the era’s limitations on female experience through their suggested methods of cure. Rather than being an unequivocal attempt to keep women in their place, however, this was the result of an inability to see beyond the hegemonic influence of the period’s ideology of separate spheres. As a ubiquitous concept that was constantly under revision and redefinition, hysteria was comprehended and employed in a multitude of formats throughout the century. In the later stages of my article, I concentrate on the popular fiction of the same era to explore the more subversive potential of the same set of ideas. Mary Braddon’s novels, I will suggest, fully exploited the protean nature of hysteria, both as a sensational catalyst for her melodramatic plots and as a method of underscoring the pathological, unbalanced nature of the condition and the ideological forces it partly upheld.

As a part-ideological construct, hysteria cannot be considered as separate from the economic and political ambitions of the age, or from the division of labour and the doctrine of separate spheres that those ambitions underwrote. The economical and political values invested in the condition are perhaps most apparent in the idea, often expressed by medical writers on the subject, that hysteria – thought to have reached “little epidemic” status by mid- century (Gairdner, 429) – was not unrelated to the cultural status and class divisions of the age. As has been well-established in recent years, middle and upper class Victorian women, the malady’s main sufferers, were intellectually and physically excluded from the public arena and expected instead to safeguard the nation’s moral wealth in the separate, iconic sphere of home. Not only did the nineteenth-century wife appear to rationalise any suspect business endeavours of her husband, by keeping his moral life apparently secluded from those operations, but she also became a visible signifier of his wealth and success. Languishing at home in her silks and lace, not required to work because of her husband’s financial security, the middle or upper class woman became a living testimony of her husband’s achievements. ((For a discussion of this idea in relation to Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), see Langland.)) As a result, the era’s medical texts would not infrequently associate the “ornamental members of society” (Skey Hysteria, 64), who did suffer from hysteria, with cultural decadence and over-civilisation. In Esquirol’s Mental Maladies, for example, the author claims that there are a higher number of hysterical women in France than in England, and suggests:

The vices of education adopted by our young ladies, the preference given to acquirements purely ornamental […] and want of occupation; are causes sufficient to render insanity most frequent among our women. […] Without doubt, civilization occasions disease, and augments the number of the sick, because, by multiplying the means of enjoyment, it causes some to live too well, and too fast. (Esquirol, 36, 42)

Drawing on the era’s psychiatric obsessions with excessive behaviour, Esquirol argues that the greater number of insane French women is an indication that his nation has developed “too well, and too fast.”

By mid century, such connections between hysteria and class economy, though immovable, were drawn even more sardonically. In 1866, for example, Skey delivered a series of six lectures on the disorder to the students of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in which he claimed that:

People without compulsory occupation, who lead a life of both bodily and mental inactivity – people whose means are sufficiently ample to indulge in, and who can purchase, the luxury of illness, the daily visit of the physician, and, not the least, the sympathy of friends – these real comforts come home to the hearts of those ornamental members of society who are living examples of an intense sensibility, whether morbid or genuine, who can afford to be ill, and will not make the effort to be well. […] A poor man cannot afford this indulgence, and so he throws the sensations aside by mental resolution. (Skey Hysteria, 64-5)

That same year, this cynical portrait of hysteria as a “luxury” prevailing in “those who can afford to be ill,” was repeated and extended by Julius Althaus, who also argued that the malady:

… is frequent in the higher classes of society, in ladies who lead an artificial life, who do nothing, whose every wish or whim is often gratified as soon as formed, and who are very apt to go into hysterics at the slightest provocation or contrariety. For them, real honest work, the pursuance of an object in life, such as the education of children or such charitable undertaking, is often the best cure. (Althaus, 246)

Despite their obvious contempt for the idle lifestyles of wealthy women, both Skey and Althaus leave the ideological status of those lifestyles markedly unchallenged. Althaus recommends, for example, that hysterical women perform characteristically feminine duties, like the “education of children” or a “charitable undertaking,” as suitable methods of recovery. While Skey’s scathing tone aims to mock those “without compulsory occupation,” his lecture nevertheless neglects to suggest any alternatives to their valetudinarian existences. Hence, while mid-Victorian medical writers like Skey and Althaus expressed some awareness of (and frustration with) the cultural and economical foundations of hysteria’s etiology, their lack of suggested alternatives to women’s inoccupation also reveals an incapacity to see beyond the impetus of those traditional social structures.

In his 1853 book, On the Pathology and Treatment of Hysteria, Robert Brudenell Carter reveals how the period’s medical negotiations of womanhood were similarly unable to ignore completely the traditional idea that women, like their mother Eve, were inherently sexual creatures. He writes, for example:

If the relative power of the emotion against the sexes be compared in the present day, even without including the erotic passion, it seems to be considerably greater in the woman than in the man, partly from the natural conformation which causes the former to feel, under circumstances where the latter thinks; and partly because the woman is more often under the necessity of endeavouring to conceal her feelings. But when sexual desire is taken into the account, it will add immensely to the forces bearing upon the female, who is much under its dominion; and who, if unmarried and chaste, is compelled to restrain every manifestation of its sway. (Carter, 33)

Carter’s argument here exemplifies the essentially contradictory and inconsistent nature of the period’s medical classifications of hysteria. On the one hand, he appears to launch an attack on the contemporary social inculcations that kept female sexuality concealed and controlled, considering female roles, as did Althaus and Skey, as the direct causes of the condition; yet, on the other hand, the influence of the Victorian ideology of the division of labour reappears in his contention that it is the role of the woman to “feel,” while the man’s is to “think.” While Carter’s argument demonstrates a degree of discontent with the narrow social position of women, it is still unable to separate that contention from the ideological belief that men and women have widely different motivating emotions, which, in the female, are of a fundamentally sexual character. What also emerges from his argument is an indication of how the potentially liberating recognition of women’s “necessity of endeavouring to conceal [their] feelings” merged with the traditional concept of women as excessively sexual, to form the idea of hysteria as a pressurised, volcanic sexuality – rendered all the more explosive because of those cultural barriers that “restrain[ed] every manifestation in its sway.”

As the origins of the word “hysteria” illustrate, the characteristic that had remained constant throughout the disorder’s nosological history was its firm links with female sexuality through medical obsessions with the uterus. Althaus observed how, prior to the mid-nineteenth century:

Pressure of the uterus upon the various organs of the body was considered to be the mainspring of all the sufferings of hysterical patients. Where there was a feeling of suffocation, it must be due to the uterus compressing the throat and the bronchial tubes; coma and lethargy in hysterical women proceeded from the womb squeezing the blood-vessels travelling towards the brain; palpitations arose from the uterus worrying the heart; and if there were a feeling of pain and constriction in the epigastrium, it must again be the womb engaged in a relentless attack on the liver. (Althaus, 245)

By the mid century, such direct links between the wandering uterus and hysteria were being discredited. One correspondent to The Lancet observed, in 1853, for example, how it was “a mistake to designate by a uterine name a disease which is not of uterine origin” (Hovell, 219), and the period’s most important studies were eager to demonstrate that men could also suffer from the disorder, although rather more rarely than women. ((See, for example, Skey Hysteria, Second Lecture, and Carter, 82.)) Paradoxically, while such considerations of hysteria appeared to discount any directlinks between the uterus and the disorder, the menstrual cycle, as cause, symptom and cure of the condition, seems to have grown in theoretical importance. Althaus, who had dismissed earlier clinical emphases on the womb also claimed in the same lecture that “hysterical attacks occur almost always after [among other things] sudden suppression of the menstrual flow,” adding that “in all cases of hysteria, we must take care that the ordinary functions of life, especially menstruation and alimentation, should be in proper order” (Althaus: 247, 248). Carter also wrote about “faulty menstruation” that:

It will be found that, although affections of this kind often arise consecutively to hysteria, still that women suffering from them are more liable than others, cæteris paribus, to be the subjects of the disorder. (Carter, 36)

Studies like Carter’s often made little or no distinction between “menstrual” and “mental.” As Prichard had suggested:

Sudden suppressions of the catamenia are frequently followed by disease of the nervous system of various kinds. Females […] undergoing powerful excitements, experience a suppression of the catamenia, followed in some instances immediately by fits of epilepsy or hysteria, the attacks of which are so sudden as to illustrate the connexion of cause and effect. (Prichard, 157)

Like their predecessors, then, mid-Victorian medical writers believed that the course of hysteria was biologically determined by uterine processes. The difference lay in the theory of a psychosomatic connection between the obstructed menstrual flow and a pressurised volcanic hysterical energy. While not solely Victorian in origin, this connection was characteristic of that era’s belief in the disorder’s links with the contemporary social statuses of women, which allowed no legitimate outlet for emotional and sexual energy. The suppressed catamenial cycle, it was believed, both biologically instigated and metonymically signified a tense, pathological state that would eventually culminate in an excessive bursting forth of hysterics.

Victorian methods of “curing” hysteria were heavily influenced by this perceived explosive sexuality. Besides the reestablishment of the menstrual flow and gruesome “treatments” like Isaak Baker Brown’s clitoridectomy, ((This aimed to cure hysteria by “excis[ing] the clitoris” as that “train of nervous disorders is entirely dependent on peripheral irritation (brought on by abnormal practices) of the pudic nerve, especially of that branch of the nerve which is distributed to the clitoris” (Unsigned Review, 485). For a historical study of clitoridectomy, see Showalter The Female Malady, 75-8.)) it was believed that an intense surveillance was one of the most successful methods of controlling and anticipating the sexual and emotional immoderations central to hysteria’s causality. By keeping excessive female emotion, especially when of a sexual character, in constant check, medical professionals (and the male population generally) could prevent and cure hysteria through the utilisation of a watchful supervision. As Althaus remarked (246), no woman was exempt from the onset of hysteria “since the disease indiscriminately invades women of all kinds,” and Carter (58) observed the “extraordinary development of cunning by means of which hysterical women often carry out most complicated systems of deception, and succeed in baffling the watchfulness, even of very close observers.” The physician had to be prepared, it seemed, to enter into a potentially intense investigative contest with the hysterical woman; to simultaneously anticipate and control her turbulent sexuality through his specialist observation. In the preface to his 1860 treatise On the Obscure Diseases of the Brain and Disorders of the Mind, Forbes Winslow warns “the practitioner of medicine, that he is not only to watch with the greatest of vigilance for the approach of all head affections, but, if possible, to anticipate their stealthy advance.” (Winslow, ix-x).

Hence, the mid-nineteenth-century’s medical negotiations of hysteria were not unmindful of women’s limited social roles, which they acknowledged as allowing the female population no suitable outlet for powerful emotions, especially those of a sexual nature. The lack of suggestions for alternative roles for women, however, and the recommendation of an intense surveillance of all hysterical, and potentially hysterical, cases, reveal how these medical studies were unable, in many ways, to look beyond their culture’s hegemonic constructions of femininity. The curative measures they employed, though often well intentioned, tended to serve as alternative methods of discipline and control, supporting the ideological roles that their practitioners had also sought to vilify.

Nevertheless, the multifaceted nature of hysteria, a nature it derived from its elusive, indefinite and ever-provisional meaning, ensured that it was experienced, interpreted and defined in a myriad of contradictory ways throughout the century. Male medical theorists were therefore not alone in their considerations of the condition: the female sensation novelists of the 1860s, in particular, were “cognizant of the protean metamorphoses of hysteria” (Coulson, 483). Concentrating on two of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s less well- known novels, I now argue that such fictional appropriations of the subject as hers present another “anomalous shape which the hysterical affection can assume” (Coulson, 483), this time, however, a shape that launches a much more successful attack on the Victorian marginalization of women than we see in operation in the concurrent, non-fictional material.

Victorian critical reactions to the sensation novel drew on the same categories that medical writers employed to define the symptoms of hysteria. As Sally Shuttleworth has observed (192), “The sensation fiction of the 1860s shared with the emerging science of Victorian psychiatry a preoccupation with psychological excess.” This is certainly apparent in the often cited review by H. L. Mansel, who argued in 1863 that:

… sensation novels must be recognised as a great fact in the literature of the day, and a fact whose significance is by no means of an agreeable kind. Regarding these works merely as an efflorescence, as an eruption indicative of the state of the health of the body in which they appear, the existence of an impure or a silly crop of novels, and the fact that they are eagerly read, are by no means favourable symptoms of the conditions of the body of society. But it is easier to detect the disease than to suggest the remedy. (Mansel, 512)

Almost reaching fever pitch themselves, Mansel’s comments appear to replicate the images used by the medical textbooks with which his piece in the Quarterly Review shared a social space. His characterisation of sensation fiction as a psychosomatic, venereal disease, signifying the moral degradation of the society in which it is read, fully exemplifies the tone and main concerns of the period’s theories on hysteria. Sensation novels, he claimed, were “both the effect and the cause” of a “wide-spread corruption” (Mansel, 482-3). Forbes Winslow, despite presenting Wilkie Collins, the “Father of Sensation,” with a signed copy of his book Obscure Diseases (Baker, 160), concurred with Mansel, extending the point even further to suggest that the “moral contamination” at the heart of the hysterical epidemic was partly due to the “perusal of vicious books, sensation novels […] surreptitiously taken into the nursery” (Winslow, 157).

Sensation novels and non-fictional books on the “little epidemic” apparently raging through the female population, thus form an important part of each other’s historical contextualization. Mary Braddon’s novels, which, along with those of Collins and Mrs Henry Wood, instigated the sensation phenomenon, were produced in feverish haste. Braddon could write a novel in six weeks and admitted to Edward Bulwer-Lytton that: “I know that my writing teems with errors, absurdities, contradictions, and inconsistencies; but I have never written a line that has not been written against time – sometimes with the printer waiting outside the door” (cited in Hughes, 120-1). With reference to two of the four novels she wrote in the year 1863 alone, namely Eleanor’s Victory and John Marchmont’s Legacy, I argue that some of these “contradictions” and “inconsistencies” result from her literary appropriation of the period’s medical ideas on hysteria, which, as we have seen, teemed with such incongruities. Braddon’s fiction often exploited the period’s hysterical concepts, and, through the remarkable characterisations of Eleanor Vane and Olivia Marchmont, in particular, offer a subtle and stealthy expose of the same images’ flaws and weaknesses.

Eleanor’s Victory is the story of a woman resolved on revenge. After losing the money that was meant for his daughter’s education in a card game with a young English artist called Launcelot Darrell, the eponymous heroine’s father, George Vane, commits suicide in the opening stages of the book. The plot’s main trajectory is Eleanor’s attempt to avenge his death by causing Launcelot to be disinherited by his wealthy uncle, Maurice de Crespigny. Aged just fifteen at the time of her father’s death, Eleanor is at a critical time in her life, according to the medical texts, as “between fifteen and twenty years of age, hysteria is most frequent in consequence of the radical change which the nervous system undergoes during that period” (Althaus, 247). Even before she learns that her father is dead, Eleanor experiences her first hysterical paroxysm brought on by his disappearance:

Her thoughts rambled on in a strange confusion until they grew bewildering; her brain became dizzy with perpetual repetitions of the same idea; when she lifted her head – her poor, weary, burning, heavy head, which seemed a leaden weight that it was almost impossible to raise – and looked from the window, the street below reeled beneath her eyes, the floor upon which she knelt seemed sinking with her into some deep gulf of blackness and horror. A thousand conflicting sounds – not the morning noises of the waking city – hissed and buzzed, and roared and thundered in her ears, growing louder and louder and louder, until they all melted away in the fast-gathering darkness.

(Braddon Eleanor’s Victory, I, 106)

Shortly after this fit, her friends consult “an English doctor” who delivers the following diagnosis:

The anxiety and suspense have overtaxed her brain. Anything would be better than that this overstrained state of the mind should continue. Her constitution will rally after a shock; but with her highly nervous and imaginative nature, everything is to be dreaded from prolonged mental irritation. (Braddon Eleanor’s Victory, I, 106-7)

According to this diagnosis, which draws directly on the images used by the medical texts and their symptomatology of hysteria, Eleanor’s adolescent and impressionable mind is unequal to the excessive worry caused by her father’s disappearance. She consequently lapses into a state of extreme “confusion,” fragmentation (“a thousand conflicting sounds”) and experiences a complete loss of volition.

Shortly after hearing that her father is dead, and the manner in which he died, however, Eleanor’s hysteria transforms itself from the “terrible bursts of grief – grief that was loud and passionate in proportion to the impulsive vehemence of Eleanor Vane’s character” (I, 113), into a rigid obsession with revenge:

“Tell me the truth,” she cried vehemently, “did my father kill himself?” “
It is feared that he did, Eleanor.”
The pale face grew a shade white, and the trembling frame became suddenly rigid. […]
“Sooner or later [says Eleanor] I swear to be revenged upon [Launcelot] for my father’s cruel death.”
“Eleanor, Eleanor!” cried the Signora: “is this womanly? Is this Christian-like?”
The girl turned upon her. There was almost a supernatural light, now, in the dilated grey eyes. […] She looked, in her desperate resolution and virginal beauty, like some young martyr in the middle ages waiting to be led to the rack.
“I don’t know whether it is womanly or Christian-like,” she said, “but I know that it is henceforward the purpose of my life, and that it is stronger than myself.” (Braddon Eleanor’s Victory, I, 117, 123)

Eleanor’s mental condition here demonstrates all the monomaniacal and excessive characteristics of the mid-nineteenth century’s medical descriptions of hysteria. Her uncontrollable sobbing, choking sensations and trembling continue throughout the novel but are henceforth combined, and not unrelated to, a “desperate resolution” that is “stronger,” as Eleanor admits, “than myself.” Lyn Pykett (84) has observed how, “it is Eleanor’s own deliberate concealments which sustain – and provide the necessary complications for – the narrative trajectory.” Indeed, following the murderous exploits of Lady Audley and the passions of Aurora Floyd, Braddon’s readers would scarcely have been satisfied with the story of a heroine whose actions remain within the realms of rationality or the usual round of dull, domestic duties. Expanding on Pykett’s argument, I argue that the rendering of Eleanor Vane as hysterical, or – perhaps more accurately – hysteromaniacal, equips Braddon with the melodramatic means to drive her novel onward at a feverish pace and to develop her hallmark sensational style. It is unlikely to be coincidental, therefore, that the key scenes in Eleanor’s revenge scheme are also her most hysterical. In one such episode, she and her confidant, Richard Thornton, scour through the sketchbook of Launcelot Darrell for clues of his instrumentality in the death of George Vane. Richard, himself an artist, believes that “whatever falsehoods [Launcelot] may impose upon his fellow-men, his sketch-book will tell the truth” (II, 35). He is not mistaken as the search uncovers a sketch of the card game in which George lost the money for his daughter’s education. The discovery triggers the following reaction from Eleanor:

Eleanor stood behind [Richard], erect and statuesque, with her hand grasping the back of his chair, a pale Nemesis bent on revenge and destruction. […] Looking round at the pale young face, Richard saw how terrible was the struggle in the girl’s breast, and how likely she was at any moment to betray herself.
“Eleanor,” he whispered, “if you want to carry this business to the end, you must keep your secret. Launcelot Darrell is coming this way. Remember that an artist is quick to observe. There is the plot of a tragedy in your face at the moment.” (Braddon Eleanor’s Victory, II, 47)

With a storm of volcanic passion raging within, yet with a calm exterior bent on cunning and deceit, Eleanor becomes the typical hysterical woman, as the Victorian medical institution characterised her. In a later scene, one that is even more pivotal to Eleanor’s revenge, the symptoms of Eleanor’s hysteria are drawn much more clearly. Entering the shabby Parisian lodgings of a criminal who holds a will, written by Maurice de Crespigny, that disinherits Launcelot, Eleanor and her half-witted companion, Major Lennard, find the man in a state of “delirium tremens,” raving from the effects of alcohol. Believing this is to be the annihilation of all chances to avenge her father’s death, Eleanor’s “fortitude had given way before this new and most cruel disappointment. She covered her face with her hands, and sobbed aloud.” Had the details of the succeeding scene been written as a case study in one of the era’s medical textbooks, it would not have been out of place:

Major Lennard was very much distressed at this unexpected collapse upon the part of his chief. He was very big, and rather stupid. […] He looked piteously at Eleanor, as she sat sobbing passionately, half unconscious of his presence, forgetful of everything except that this last hope had failed her. […] Her sobs grew every moment louder and more hysterical. […] The sobbing grew louder; and [the Major] felt that it was imperatively necessary that something energetic should be done in this crisis. A thought flashed upon him as he looked hopelessly round the room, and in another moment he had seized a small white crockery ware jug from the Frenchman’s toilet table, and launched its contents at Eleanor’s head.
This was a […] master-stroke. The girl looked up with her head dripping, but with her courage revived by the shock her senses had received. (Braddon Eleanor’s Victory, II, 296-8)

The traditional, gendered positions of the man as doer and the woman as the done-to re-emerge in this extraordinary scene played by a delirious drunkard, an idiot and a hysterical woman. The sudden dousing with cold water was considered by mid-nineteenth-century medics to be one of the most effective methods of curing hysteria. “In hysterical attacks,” Althaus admits, “I prefer a drenching with cold water” (248). Although his choice of words leaves it somewhat ambiguous, it is safe to assume that Althaus is speaking in reference to his patients’ “hysterical attacks,” and not his own.

Eleanor’s “mad” (I, 132) and “unwomanly” (I, 162) revenge not only drives her into these scenes of hysterical action, but also steers her into marriage with the wealthy lawyer Gilbert Monckton. Like Wilkie Collins’s Magdalen Vanstone in No Name (1862), who marries her unloved cousin Noel as a means of recovering her father’s lost fortune, Eleanor Vane becomes better equipped to enact her revenge by marrying Gilbert. She accepts his offer of marriage, yet “she only regarded him as an instrument which might happen to be of use to her” (I, 295). While Gilbert is declaring his undying love for Eleanor:

She tried to listen, she tried to understand; but she could not. The one idea which held possession of her mind, kept that mind locked against every other impression. […] No trace of womanly confusion, or natural coquetry, betrayed itself in her manner. Pale and absorbed she held out her hand, and offered up her Future as a small and unconsidered matter, when set against the one idea of her life – the promise to her dead father. (Braddon Eleanor’s Victory, I, 306)

The same excessive, Hamlet-like desire for revenge that drives No Name and the early scenes of Eleanor’s Victory becomes the catalyst for the main plot in the second volume of the latter novel, which hinges on the loveless marriage between Eleanor and Gilbert.

After her wedding, the small, emotional indications of hysteria that Eleanor is unable to conceal are not lost upon her husband who has “a lawyer’s powers of penetration and habit of observation” (I, 302). On one occasion, for example, Eleanor is about to ask Gilbert if he has seen Launcelot:

“And you have seen –––– ?”
She stopped suddenly. Launcelot Darrell’s name had risen to her lips, but she checked herself before uttering it, lest she should betray her eager interest in him. […] Gilbert Monckton, watching his wife’s face […] had perceived the hesitation with which she had asked this question. […] Eleanor was incapable of dissimulation, and her disappointment betrayed itself in her face. […] Sudden blushes lit up Eleanor Monckton’s cheeks like a flaming fire. (Braddon Eleanor’s Victory, I, 338-9)

Braddon’s readers know that Eleanor’s “eager interest,” and the reason she betrays so much emotion when Launcelot is referred to, is due to her “vengeful hatred of the young man” (I, 338), but Gilbert, looking on, becomes obsessed with interpreting these outward signs of his wife’s emotions:

He had loved and trusted this girl. He had seen innocence and candour beaming in her face, and he had dared to believe in her; and from the very hour of her marriage a horrible transformation had taken place in this frank and fearless creature. A hundred changes of expression, all equally mysterious to him, had converted the face he loved into a wearisome and incomprehensible enigma, which it was the torment of his life to endeavour vainly and hopelessly to guess. (Braddon Eleanor’s Victory, II, 82-3)

Gilbert’s ardent gaze on his wife’s face is clearly drawn from the larger, contemporary medical idea that hysteria was an energy that needed to be anticipated and controlled by “the greatest of vigilance.” The interpretation that Gilbert gives to Eleanor’s hysterical symptoms also echoes the tenor of the medical books by misconstruing them as sexual. He thinks: “her agitation, her tears, her confusion, all betray the truth. Her heart has never been mine. […] Her love is Launcelot Darrell’s” (II, 111). Like his medical counterparts, the lawyer assumes that the root of all hysterical agitation in women is of a concealed, sexually excessive character.

Braddon’s novel not only discounts this association by revealing it to be incorrect in the case of Eleanor Vane (whose agitation is caused by hatred, not desire), but Eleanor’s Victory also demonstrates how the supposedly objective observation of hysteria is itself subjective, obsessive and pathological. In the second volume of the text, the main hysteromaniac is not Eleanor but Gilbert. Having been jilted as a young man and no doubt influenced by the Victorian idea that all women are potential Eves, Gilbert becomes excessively watchful and suspicious of his wife. His jealousy is repeatedly characterised as an insidious demon that warps his ability to interpret clearly:

The insidious imp which the lawyer had made his bosom companion of late, at this moment transformed itself into a raging demon, and gnawed ravenously at the vitals of its master. […] The ravenous demon’s tooth grew sharper than usual when Eleanor said this. […] Every circumstance […] was very clear to him now, by the aid of a pair of spectacles lent him by the jealous demon his familiar. […] There is something remarkable in the persistency with which the sufferer from that terrible disease called jealousy strives to aggravate the causes of his torture. (Braddon Eleanor’s Victory, I, 340-2)

In this passage, and many others like it, the novel reveals the subjective and masochistic nature of male interpretations of female mental pathology. The metaphorical spectacles lent to Gilbert by his demon do not make things clearer but mislead him, being tinted with mistaken, preconceived ideas of women as excessively sexually charged. The hysterical, obsessive nature of Gilbert’s interpretation of his wife’s hysterical symptoms is aptly underscored by the final sentence of the above quotation, which characterises Gilbert’s fears as self-propelled, “aggravate[d]” and “disease[d].” As in Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), where Robert Audley’s attempt to prove Lady Audley insane becomes itself obsessive and monomaniacal,Eleanor’s Victory similarly suggests, through the characterisation of Gilbert’s demons, that the supposedly objective observers of hysteria are themselves the most hysterical. The medical obsessions with a concealed female sexuality as the cause and aggravation of the disorder are, it seems, the result of a “demon familiar,” a hysteromania in the male psyche.

These connections between hysteria and a real or perceived hidden sexual desire are explored even more ardently in Braddon’s next work, John Marchmont’s Legacy. Braddon had already started writing this novel before she had fully completed Eleanor’s Victory and disclosed, at the time, that “I have tried to draw […] at least one character more original than any of my usual run of heroes & heroines.” ((Cited in Toru Sasaki and Norman Page’s Introduction to Braddon John Marchmont’s Legacy, xv.)) This character, Olivia Marchmont, is one of the era’s most extraordinary fictional renderings of its medicalised images of womanhood. Like her forerunner, Eleanor Vane, Olivia exhibits symptoms of hysteria throughout the novel. Unlike the earlier text, however, John Marchmont’s Legacy appears, on the surface at least, to accept the alleged sexual foundations of the malady, as Olivia’s “madness” stems from her frustrated desires for her cousin Edward:

She had loved Edward Arundel with all the strength of her soul; she had wasted a world of intellect and passion upon this bright-haired boy. This foolish, grovelling madness had been the blight of her life. […] If her life had been a wider one, this wasted love would, perhaps have shrunk into its proper insignificance: she would have loved, and suffered and recovered; as so many of us recover from this common epidemic. But all the volcanic forces of an impetuous nature, concentrated into one narrow focus, wasted themselves upon this one feeling, until that which should have been a sentiment became a madness. (Braddon John Marchmont’s Legacy, 86)

This depiction of Olivia’s mind clearly draws on the supposed “epidemic,” “volcanic” and excessive nature of hysteria, as well as on the relationship it was believed to have had with the narrow lifestyle of middle-class women. As with her earlier text, Braddon uses these non-fictional ideas to create and animate a sensational narrative. Olivia’s passionate desire for her cousin leads to a hatred for her stepdaughter Mary who is Edward’s chosen bride. Olivia consequently allows Paul Marchmont to imprison Mary in a boathouse and usurp her estate. In this novel, however, Braddon also uses sensational techniques to highlight the links that existed between male bourgeois advancement and the pathology of hysteria. Exploiting the medical opinion that hysterical women were supposedly of an impressionable and vulnerable nature, Olivia is characterised as a “fitting tool” for those who desire to exploit her:

Blind and forgetful of everything in the hideous egotism of her despair, what was Olivia Marchmont but a fitting tool, a plastic and easily-moulded instrument, in the hands of unscrupulous people, whose hard intellects had never been beaten into confused shapelessness in the fiery furnace of passion? (Braddon John Marchmont’s Legacy, 198)

As Olivia is Mary Marchmont’s guardian, and Mary stands between Paul and a considerable fortune, it is in his best interests to exploit this vulnerability. An artist like Launcelot Darrell, Paul therefore attempts to penetrate Olivia’s mind and acquaint himself with the cause of her hysteromania:

He took his dissecting-knife and went to work at an intellectual autopsy. He anatomised the wretched woman’s soul. He made her tell her secret, and bare her tortured breast before him; now wringing some hasty word from her impatience, now entrapping her into some admission, – if only so much as a defiant look, a sudden lowering of the dark brows, an involuntary compression of the lips. He made her reveal herself to him. (Braddon John Marchmont’s Legacy, 219)

As with the uterine theories of hysteria, this episode makes no distinction between body and mind, as is apparent from its suggestive use of medical, post-mortem imagery. The passage is also weirdly sexual, as Paul “made [Olivia] reveal herself” and “bare her tortured breast.” The use of the term “entrapping her” also underscores how sexual, psychological revelation becomes a way in which women are controlled and contained by their male, medical observers. Discovering Olivia’s secret, Paul is subsequently able to exacerbate her hatred for Mary until she relinquishes her role as guardian and allows him to rise from his Bohemian obscurity and attain the station of the Lord of Marchmont Towers.

Towards the end of the novel, however, the tables are turned and Olivia becomes instrumental in Paul’s fall from this elevated position. Believing his wife Mary to be dead, Edward plans to marry Belinda Lawford. Olivia, on hearing of his intended betrothal, resolves to inform her cousin that his wife (who has given birth to his son) is still alive. In a chapter aptly titled “The Turning of the Tide,” the omniscient narrator relinquishes all use of medical terminology to Paul who attempts to silence Olivia by using it to warn other characters against her accusations. He claims:

There is no knowing what may be attempted by a madwoman, driven mad by a jealousy in itself almost as terrible as madness. […] What has not been done by unhappy creatures in this woman’s state of mind? Every day we read of such things in newspapers – deeds of horror at which the blood grows cold in our veins. […] I come to tell you that a desperate woman has sworn to hinder to-morrow’s marriage. Heaven knows what she may do in her jealous frenzy! (Braddon John Marchmont’s Legacy, 414)

The success of Paul’s attempt is only short-lived, however, as Olivia, considering herself now sane (“mad until today […] but not mad today”, 423) storms in on the marriage ceremony armed with the irrefutable testimony of Mary and her child who are waiting nearby. The plot of John Marchmont’s Legacy thus melodramatically fictionalises the early Victorian connections between the fiscal development of the emerging bourgeoisie and the medical constructions of hysteria. Whereas the refined, hysterically prone, domestic angel signified and safeguarded the nation’s moral and economic wealth in the ideological division of spheres, Braddon’s novel draws these connections much more deliberately and schematically, since Paul’s monetary successes are inseparable from the pathologising of Olivia as hysterical.

Another concurrence between John Marchmont’s Legacy and medical studies of hysteria emerges in the novel’s representation of Olivia’s nefarious and hysterical actions as related to her limited role as a woman in Victorian society. Olivia’s sexuality, combined with her narrow, domestic existence, is directly linked to her hysterical paroxysms. With the shadow of Elizabeth Garrett, first ever female physician in Britain, looming large over the public psyche at the time Braddon wrote this novel, it is not surprising to find a reference to Garrett’s American counterparts:

The narrow life to which [Olivia] doomed herself, the self-immolation which she called duty, left her a prey to this one thought. Her work was not enough for her. Her powerful mind wasted and shrivelled for want of worthy employment. […] If Olivia Marchmont could have gone to America, and entered herself amongst the feminine professors of law or medicine, – if she could have turned field-preacher, like simple Dinah Morris, or set up a printing press in Bloomsbury, or even written a novel, – I think she might have been saved. The superabundant energy of her mind would have found a new object. As it was, she did none of these things. She had only dreamt one dream, and by force of perpetual repetition the dream had become a madness. (Braddon John Marchmont’s Legacy, 135-6)

In this passage, Olivia’s sexuality is closely aligned to professional ambition; her incapacity to find an outlet for either converts them into “madness.” Later, such connections are made more forcibly still when Olivia meets Lavinia Weston, Paul’s sister and a doctor’s wife. Lavinia, believing Olivia to be suffering from hysteria, suggests that:

… a doctor’s wife may often be useful when a doctor is himself out of place. There are little nervous ailments – depression of spirits, mental uneasiness – from which women, and sensitive women, suffer acutely, and which perhaps a woman’s more refined nature alone can thoroughly comprehend. […] Weston is a good simple-hearted creature, but he knows as much about a woman’s mind as he does of an Aeolian harp. […] These medical men watch us in the agonies of hysteria; they hear our sighs, they see our tears, and in their awkwardness and ignorance they prescribe commonplace remedies out of the pharmacopoeia. (Braddon John Marchmont’s Legacy, 196)

The objectivity and competence of male, medical interpretation of hysteria is again brought under question. Lavinia draws on the unbalanced observational tendencies of medical men like her husband to champion women as the correct and most qualified experts in hysterical conditions. It is hardly accidental, therefore, that this call for female psychiatric expertise, and the disparagement of male medical ability, is followed, almost immediately, by a disparagement of the male concept of hysteria: Olivia claims, “I am not subject to any fine-ladylike hysteria, I can assure you, Mrs Weston” (197).

Braddon’s John Marchmont’s Legacy thus draws similar conclusions to the medical scribes who had noticed a connection between the hysterical epidemic and the social marginalization of women. Leading to hysterical outbursts like Olivia’s, the social division of labour, Braddon seems to suggest, is as problematic and pathological as hysteria itself. Medical authors like Julius Althaus and Robert Brudenell Carter, however, do not suggest any alternative roles for women beyond the domestic space. Braddon’s text emphatically does. The novel puts forward the idea that women ought to be considered as potential doctors, lawyers, preachers and earnest writers. This is a claim that differs widely from Althaus’s suggestion that the occupations adopted to cure hysteria ought to be the education of children and charity work – both of which Olivia pursues in the novel, and both of which serve only to exacerbate her explosive mental condition. Robert Brudenell Carter had identified the type of concealed emotions in women as exclusively female in character. Women, he argued, felt while men thought. The feelings that constantly place Olivia Marchmont on the verge of hysteria, however, are not female in character but, if gendered at all, would be male – no doubt the very same ambitions that drove medical writers such as Carter. Like her clinical contemporaries, Braddon is able, through the concept of hysteria, to expose (and express discontent with) the social limitations on female experience. Unlike their medical counterparts, however, Braddon’s novels demonstrate an ability to see beyond the Victorian division of labour, the “demon familiar” that had warped and constrained many of the male, non-fictional considerations of the same idea. In its suggestion that women could make successful doctors and lawyers, John Marchmont’s Legacy takes one step further than the medical books, suggesting that the only successful method of preventing and curing hysteria is by granting women free play in the public, as well as private, sphere.


The mid-Victorian medical literature on hysteria and the sensation novels of the 1860s were thus both, in many ways, hysterical fictions. “Hysterical” in subject matter, tone and motivation, they offer a significant snapshot of the workings of the period’s medical interpretations of female identity as ideologically restricted. Ubiquitous, multidimensional, undefined and indefinable, “hysteria” is itself a significant expose of the workings of the Victorian ideological economy/economical ideology as a network of preconception and contradiction. Yet, through its integration into popular literature, hysteria could also supply a cross-section of the faults upon which it was partly constructed and act as a platform for more subversive calls for female emancipation.

Works Cited

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