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April 18, 2012 / Louisa Yates


In the course of guiding first year students through the repressed mysteries of Freudian psychoanalysis, the term ‘hysteria’ was naturally discussed. An explanation of how hysteria is a gendered term (the word itself derives from the Greek, ὑστερικ-ός, meaning ‘belonging to the womb, suffering in the womb’) led to a suggestion that Victorian women who presented themselves with hysteria would be promptly masturbated back to tip-top health by their physician.

This reminded me that I still have to hunt out, and watch, this 2011 film:

Hysteria Poster

The IMDb page for the film describes it as:  ‘A romantic comedy based on the truth of how Mortimer Granville devised the invention of the first vibrator in the name of medical science.’ Leaving aside the extremely problematic words ‘romantic comedy’ (treatment of women suffering from mental illness = HILARIOUS) and the presence of Maggie Gyllenhall, whose performance in Secretary was excellent but became the touchstone for ‘sexy female subservience in the mainstream’ (and thereby makes me wonder what message the director wanted to send by casting her): there is the little issue of the ‘medical vibrator’ being  a complete fabrication.

The always excellent Lesley A. Hall – link goes to her full website – should be the first point of call for anyone doing any kind of thinking about Victorian sexual practices. Hall’s entry on hysteria provides a whole host of reasons for this to be a myth, as well as a brief investigation as to how it got a recent shot in the arm (it’s in a section entitled ‘Victorian Sex Factoids’, which is reason enough for anyone to take a look, I would think).

What I’d like to add to this is that, frankly, We Want To Believe. The UK in 2012 has been trained to expect certain things of the Victorians, and sexual dysfunction and medical exploitation of women is high up on that list.

This is not intended to suggest that women did not suffer repression and marginalisation in the 19th century – indeed, the very presence of neo-Victorian fiction is testament to the often systematic way in which those who weren’t white, upper-to-middle-class, heterosexual men were silenced. But I do want to float the notion that this silencing and restriction often finds its expression in what might be called Neo-Victorian Touchstones. Examples relevant to this point would be female sexual repression, Spritualist practice and yes, male doctors.

Even with the medical vibrator dispensed with as myth, the air of sexual impropriety floating around male physicians is a Neo-Victorian Thing, while the gendered nature of hysteria serves as another one of those knowing winks to an informed reader.

Doctors, of course, serve the neo-Victorian fiction writer well as a useful example of patriarchy and male dominance; gatekeepers of space (they often visit women alone in their bedrooms) as well as the female body (women doctors remained uncommon throughout the Victorian period). The ‘medical men’ are characterised as the enemy of Spiritualism – itself heavily gendered as a refuge of women’s expression and release. Judith Walkowitz’s impeccably researched monograph City of Dreadful Delight; Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late Victorian London (1992) is as good a read as any novel and sums up the situation in a nutshell with the title of her chapter ‘Science and the Seance’.

The battle lines are clear. This is men v. women. Sarah Waters’s Affinity alludes to the inability of men to govern a women’s space, while Michèle Roberts’s In the Red Kitchen vividly re-imagines the life of a medium, Flora Milk and her treatment at the hands of the exploitative ‘medical men’. Again – I am wary of spoilers, so look away now – in an example of that wonderful circular imagery that any neo-Victorian thinkers finds so thrilling, Flora is taken to the Salpêtrière – home to none other than Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-93), medical man, pioneer in hypnosis, revered tutor of Freud and yes, definer of hysteria. That rogue womb – and the men who are so keen to probe it, define it, and confine women because of it – crops up yet again.

Michel Faber’s problematic but fantastic novel The Crimson Petal and the White personfies this rogue womb in the form of Agnes Rackham,  a particularly distressing fictionalisation of rogue wombs, probing fingers, and mental illness. Faber’s novel was, of course, recently adapted by the BBC, who made Agnes a tragic counterpoint to much of the sexual debauchery and a pointed reminder of how damaging ‘the Angel in the House’ is when taken as an enforced aspiration.

Under such conditions, it’s hardly suprising that we – ahem – embrace the medical vibrator with such delight.

Works Cited:

Definition of hysteria courtesy of the trusty Oxford English Dictionary

Read these books!

Michel Faber, The Crimson Petal and the White (Canongate, 2002)

Alex Owen, The Darkened Room (University of Chicago Press, 1989)

Michèle Roberts, In the Red Kitchen (Vintage, 1990)

Judith R. Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (Routlege, 1992)

Sarah Waters, Affinity (Virago, 2002)


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