Archive Project: Hysteria and Isaac Baker Brown

Link to the VQA

My contribution to the VQA is centered on the topic of “hysteria” and how Isaac Baker Brown, a Victorian doctor, dealt with patients’ “wandering wombs.” The concept of hysteria is inherently sexist and Brown’s cliterectomy treatment is inhumane; however, most typical Victorian remedies for hysteria consisted of assisted masturbation and (later on) the use of vibrators. In his book On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy, and Hysteria in Females from 1866, Brown discusses his “removal of the cause of excitement” and he mentions the fact that he cannot discuss “all the numerous varieties of insanity and other nervous disorders to which females are liable, but only those which [he] believes to be curable by surgical means ” (Brown, 2).

The section that I chose to analyze originates from Chapter One of his book where he compares other doctors’ assisted masturbation techniques to “superficial sore[s that] will not destroy deep-seated nerve irritation” (Brown, 10).  Isaac Baker Brown’s terrible treatments and his records of female genital mutilation belong in the Victorian Queer Archive because they represent the typical heterosexual male’s response to female pleasure and sexual enlightenment within the 19th century. Brown’s fear of sexual liberation is thinly veiled under his “research” and his anxieties remind me of a William Rathbone Greg’s article called “Why are Women Redundant” that was written in 1862 and published in the National Review. In the article, Rathbone Greg is startled by the “abnormal extent of female celibacy” and he fears that women are “redundant” because they are choosing to remain unmarried, which is essentially code for independent (of men) and chaste (Rathbone Greg, 162).

Since female masturbation matches Holly Ferneaux’s idea of something that differs from a “life-script of opposite-sex marriage and reproduction,” I believe that these accounts are valuable and that they display the growing fear of female pleasure without the presence of men. This dramatic shift from the marriage-plot format to a narrowed focus on alternative sexual methods implies that men (and their genitals) are irrelevant and replaceable by the other women, by stimulation of the clitoris from vibrators, or by solo-stimulation. Furthermore, since Brown’s novel discusses the dangers of the “continual abnormal irritation of a nerve centre (the stimulation of the clitoris),” I suspect that he is nervous about female liberation and the potential “redundancy of men.”

Indeed, Brown’s choice to remove the clitoris in order to cure “hysteria” provides a concrete visual representation of Victorian anxieties spanning from the existence of lesbian relationships, the ability to achieve pleasure without a penis, and the evolution and potential eradication of the marriage-plot. Brown’s language of “superficial sore” articulates his disdain for the female sex organ and his negative word associations with the “source of evil” are the perfect display of the Victorian patriarchy in its frantic attempts to suppress women’s social and economic mobility through sexual control.


Favorite excerpt from page 11 of Brown’s book: “Experience seems to teach that in those patients whose brains have been so weakened by long continued peripheral excitement, [clitoral stimulation] causing frequent and increasing losses of nerve force, there is not sufficient mental power to enable them to control any less powerful irritation of smaller branches of the pudic nerve, than that removed by operation.”

Victorian men, most notably Isaac Baker Brown, do not seem to approve of the fact that women are taking matters into their own hands.  In fact, they despise it so much that the only alternative method is either to “cure” these “irritations” by operating upon them or by assisting their stimulation in doctor’s offices.  How queer!


Baker Brown, Isaac. “Chapter I: Introductory.” On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy, and Hysteria in Females. Hardwicke. 1866. Pp. 2 & 8-10.

Rathbone Greg, William. “Why are Women Redundant.” The National Review. 1862.: available through Columbia University Press. 1999. Pp. 157-163.

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Victorian Prostitutes: Alone and Palely Loitering

Katheryn Hughes claims that during the Victorian Era, “A young girl was not expected to focus too obviously on finding a husband. Being ‘forward’ in the company of men suggested a worrying sexual appetite. Women were assumed to desire marriage because it allowed them to become mothers rather than to pursue sexual or emotional satisfaction (Hughes, Gender Roles in the 19th Century).” However, the societal standard of sexual purity and a lack of carnal desires did not exist for men during the 19th century. In fact, many men would pay for a prostitute’s services because they [these men] were eager to bed and not looking to wed. Yet, even married men would stray from their wives in search of sensual satisfaction from their standard village entrepreneur (prostitutes are really strategic opportunists if you think about it.) With the boom of this business, came the clap… and other sexually transmitted diseases that forced the Victorians to think about intercourse as a danger rather than a harmless recreational activity.

Correspondingly, the female body was mystifying to artists and poets most likely because it was uncommon for a woman to present herself in an overtly suggestive manner. Fascinatingly enough, the19th century definition of “prostitute” did not only describe women who sold their bodies, but it was also used to label “women who were living with men outside of marriage, women who had illegitimate children, or women who had relations with men solely for pleasurable purposes and not for monetary gain (Flanders, Prostitution).” Nevertheless, women were often mistaken for prostitutes (corporeal entrepreneurs) because men would misinterpret social cues. Remarkably, a man wrote to the Times magazine in 1862 to complain that his daughters were being hassled by “lewd scoundrels” in the streets; In the same way that the 21st century handles jeering and cat-calling, the man’s concerned comment was met with a series of men who suggested that perhaps “the girls’ dress or behavior had encouraged the men (Flanders, Prostitution).”

Similarly, La Belle Dame sans Merci by John Keats discusses a knight-at-arms who is “alone” and “palely loitering.” The knight says that the “harvest’s done” and that the “sedge has withered from the lake” which both sound like euphemisms for dwindling sexual prowess as a result of infertility represented by the barren harvest and an inability to ejaculate which is represented by withering sedge near an uninspiring lake. Furthermore, the knight meets a woman with wild eyes and long hair who makes a “sweet moan” when he places a garland on her head as he continues to “set her on [his] pacing steed.” However, once the sexual encounter between the knight and the beautiful lady finishes, the knight realizes that he has been deserted on a cold hill side where he can see other “pale kings and princess [who are] death-pale.” Keats details the “starved lips” of the other men and ends with a discussion about the sedge that has withered from the lake, which is most likely the result of a sexually transmitted disease. Yet, it is unclear whether the last four lines of the poem suggest that the woman is left, like a prostitute, “Alone and palely loitering, Though the sedge is withered from the lake, and no birds sing.”

Indeed, all of the men fall victim to their own desires and they pay for services that could endanger their health. This poem seems like a didactic tale that warns the public about prostitutes or other sexually liberated women. Yet, I wonder whether the Victorian men are afraid of female sexuality or if they are actually afraid of their own lack of self-control? It’s probably the former.

Fiery Sensations

Hartright’s account of Sir Percival Glyde’s death appeals to the visual and aural senses to subliminally accentuate a happiness that would be inappropriate, by Victorian standards, to express in correlation to Glyde’s passing. The juxtaposition of the “dazzling brightness of the fire” to the “murky, starless sky” during the burning vestry scene symbolizes a satisfying shift from darkness to illumination; this shift implies that Glyde’s death will eradicate the obscurities that conceal the secrets within The Woman in White (Collins, 463). Since illumination is typically linked to the acquisition of knowledge, a fire is the perfect plot device to signify new opportunities.

Although Hartright’s actions display that he is working diligently to save Glyde from the rising flames, his melodramatic inclusion of details suggests that his actions betray his intentions. Hartright attempts to prove that “All remembrance of the heartless injury the man’s crimes had inflicted; of the love, the innocence, the happiness he had pitilessly laid waste; of the oath [he] had sworn in [his] own heart to summon him to the terrible reckoning that he deserved- passed from [his} memory like a dream (Collins, 463- 464.)” However, Walter’s overcompensation to assure the readers of his noble empathy in which he “felt nothing but the natural human impulse to save him from a frightful death” is something that I cannot buy.

During his description of Glyde’s escape attempts, Walter claims to “hear the key worked violently in the lock” from the other side of the door (Collins, 463). The violent imagery of this sexual euphemism, regardless of whether it represents a literal occurrence, suggests that Hartright is thinking about Laura Fairlie and her function within her marriage as a reluctant lock that refuses to yield to her husband’s overbearing demands. Congruently, I believe that as the light from the fire becomes “brighter and brighter,” Walter becomes increasingly more exuberant.

Fear of Committal

Throughout The Woman in White, Miss Fairlie is described as a bright figure that “passes by in the moonlight.” (48) It is imperative to take notice of this moon motif because it reoccurs frequently within the text. During class discussions, many people spoke about Walter Hartright’s “supernatural and ghostlike” descriptions of Laura Fairlie, yet no one mentioned the instant link between the moon and lunacy. If we are thinking about lunacy and its implications, single women in the Victorian Era were especially vulnerable and “easily disposable” candidates for the mental institutions. (Victorian Gothic) In this post, I would like to propose a relationship between desire and implications of madness.
Fascinatingly enough, “certificates of lunacy” were easy to acquire. The Victorian Era Asylums essentially severed ties between the “patient” and the outside world and the institution had full invasive power to control which letters the patients could receive from their loved ones. (Victorian Gothic) Unsurprisingly, I suspect that men who felt rejected by feme soles were eager to accuse them and to isolate them whilst chanting the mantra: “If I can’t have you, nobody can.”
Similarly, the issue exists once men ascribe women with emotional undertones where the female “influx of sentimentality” might perhaps be void. Walter focuses on “the white gleam of [Laura Fairlie’s] muslin gown and head-dress in the moonlight” and he is overwhelmed by a slew of “sensations” that “quicken his pulse” and raise a “fluttering in his heart.” (49) However, Laura is simply walking around her yard in the nighttime and she most likely does not intend to arouse any of Walter’s deep sensual “feelings.” Thus, if the idea of lunacy is linked to feelings of desire, what other connections are implied within this relationship? How could this link be dangerous for members of Victorian society?

(Victorian Gothic source)

Note: The Woman in White copy that I reference is different than the class edition and therefore it contains different page numbers. (Published by London Chatto & Windus)