Hysteria – Cured by “Marriage” (Sometimes)

cw: trauma, genetalia related-language


Hysteria, in an article from the New York Times in 1843, is defined by being, “a morbid state without fever, characterized principally by suspension, generally incomplete or sensorial, intellectual and moral power with convulsion; is almost peculiar to women, appears by paroxysms.”

This is a particularly confusing definition, especially because it is not a consistent one, a number of sources from the 19th century categorize hysteria as a catatonic state, like a severe depression, or as Freud or L. E Emerson would say psychosomatic illness brought on by a sexual trauma of some sort, while Charcot (another researcher of hysteria) deemed it hereditary and tried to treat it with hypnosis. The unifying idea of hysteria is that it is a woman’s disease, lying dormant in their bodies until it manifests in a nervous temperament, being overstimulated or feeling a sense of “ennui.”

It is also clear in these texts that “paroxysm” refers to a “female physical response” or orgasm, that is supposed to be the cure for hysteria. The idea that a “woman’s disease” can be cured by stimulation or therapeutic massage by a physician or midwife until orgasm definitely queers the idea of heteronormative sexuality. Hysteria is supposed to be cured through a consummate marriage, but because of the patriarchal notion of intercourse, most women would not reach “paroxysm” thus feeling unfulfilled. The cure for hysteria, a massage/stimulation of the vulva negates the idea that a fulfilling sexual experience revolves around the presence of a man with a penis.

Furthermore, the idea that the lack of orgasm is due to some sort of hereditary problem or psychosexual trauma is problematic, because it reinforces the idea that a woman must reach orgasm through vaginal penetration of a penis, leaving no room for any sex other than heterosexual sex.Screen Shot 2016-11-30 at 9.41.41 AM Screen Shot 2016-11-30 at 9.46.40 AM

Who’s your Daddy (ugh, gross) – Older Men as Gatekeepers of Sex

I almost hate myself for this title, but it’s too relevant to this topic. Just look up the definition of “Daddy” on Urban Dictionary, and prepare to be grossed out (Depending on your kinks, I guess, but incest terminology is not one of mine.)

One of the most fascinating things about our culture today is the idea that older men are the gatekeepers of female sexuality. In our country today, our sex education system is totally screwed/skewed towards teaching “abstinence” and reinforced with things like “purity pledges” or “purity balls”. Similar to debutante balls in that girls are making their debut as women, instead of age-appropriate dates, their fathers sign a pledge to keep their daughters pure. If you look at the pictures, these girls look like child brides wedding their fathers. Their fathers are ultimately guiding them into the realm of ~womanhood~, and get to choose when they do this.

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice explores concepts of womanhood in a safe, dream world of Lewis Carroll’s making. He allows her to test the waters of femininity, so to speak, by caring for pig-babies, having tea parties, and changing sizes quickly. In the sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, Alice’s concept of the home is literally flipped, and she makes her way across a chessboard with the hope of becoming a “queen” at the end. Along the way, she learns about the backward nature of adulthood, and as a pawn, she can’t see the rest of the chessboard. It’s a metaphor, perhaps, that children cannot see the “big picture” of life – maybe a euphemism? Children don’t know the “birds and the bees” – or the way adults procreate? They don’t quite have knowledge of mortality or puberty, perhaps.

So just as Alice gets close to the end of the chessboard, she is rescued by a white knight. An older man, with kind eyes who helps/allows Alice to cross the river (menstruation reference?) to become a queen (an arguably less veiled metaphor for womanhood). He tells her that she will transform when she crosses the river. He believes that she’s sad, and therefore tries to cheer her up with a rhyme before saying goodbye. Is this chapter, this description about the White Knight seems like Lewis Carroll’s way of saying goodbye to Alice as she enters womanhood. It seems like he’s giving her permission to become an adult and to leave him (and possibly his affection, as he might not be as attracted to adult Alice as curious, childlike-Alice). In this way, he’s the gatekeeper of her sexuality. Only after he gives her permission and guidance can she leave him to “cross the river”.

And at the end of the next chapter, Alice is growing and shaking and yelling at the people around her until she wakes up two chapters later. A metaphor for sexual release perhaps, now that she’s received permission from her father figure?? It sure has another context when thinking about Lewis Carroll’s fascination with her.

You Don’t Own Me – Ownership and the Female Body

In Christina Rossetti’s poem, In an Artist’s Studio, we are guided around the studio of a painter who has depicted the same model as different characters. She becomes the queen, the virgin in a green dress, a saint, and an angel, but remains nameless throughout. The problem here is not just that the nameless girl remains nameless, but also that her body is used and objectified by this artist. She is no longer a person, but an aesthetic subject that is to be manipulated into a trope. Like Jen Marsh is quoted in Lee’s article “The Femme Fatale as Object”:

women are rendered decorative, depersonalized; they become passive figures rather than characters in a story or drama… women are reduced to an aesthetic arrangement of sexual parts, for male fantasies. (Marsh, The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood)

Sure, the model is lovely, but that’s all she is. She is a passive figure to be manipulated in the way the artist wishes she could be. The depersonalization of women figures into tropes is too common, and in terms of Victorian literature, it is inherently connected to sexuality. The well-known trope of the Femme Fatale is played out in another poem: My Last Duchess.

In Browning’s My Last Duchess, the Duke is narrating a story about his last Duchess, who is depicted in a painting that he keeps behind a curtain. In the Duke’s eyes, she fulfills the trope of Femme Fatale because she finds pleasure in being looked upon and speaking with men other than him. He sees that she smiles at everyone, and does not value him over everyone else. The Fatale part comes into play when he seemingly murders her to keep her from smiling at everyone, and now keeps her behind the curtain. In this instance, her sexuality is totally under the control of the Duke for the rest of eternity: only he can look upon the “spot of joy” on her cheeks.

Like Marsh and Lee assert in the essay, the Duchess is literally reduced to aesthetic parts – the painting to look upon and then move on from to other paintings. She no longer has agency – she is trapped in a painting, posed beautifully forever. The Femme Fatale is fascinating only because of what she used to be, the amalgam of fear over “female malevolence” and therefore, a control over her own sexuality. Now, as an object, she can be controlled and fascinate her onlookers on command.

Laura, Anne, and the Fragility of Ill Girls

Screen Shot 2016-10-10 at 8.54.02 AMFemininity is an interesting thing in Collins’ Woman in White. In my previous post, I talked about how it seemed like Laura was the perfect candidate for a traumatic incident (I so wish I had been wrong for her sake) because her specific brand of femininity allowed for her to be a projection of anyone’s future. In my opinion, Laura’s fragility is an extension of her expression of femininity, which definitely plays into the familiar trope of “Ill Girls.”

Coming out of the prominently Victorian notion that women are delicate creatures, combined with the rise of constrictive corsets, illnesses that don’t actually exist (like hysteria) got you sent to an asylum or relegated to a ‘fainting couch’. In terms of writing, this idea of femininity became a trope in which slight, beautiful women with alabaster skin became sick in novels with things like “consumption” or an unnamable illness that made her eyes brighter and skin paler, only pronouncing her beauty more. This is the idea of the delicate “Ill Girl” – the innocently fictional young woman who needs attention and reassurance that she is admired.

Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick both embody types of the Ill Girl, one more desirable than the other. Anne resembles more of a similarly ill character, Sweeney Todd’s wife, Lucy, who goes mad and becomes homeless and unrecognizable after she is publicly raped. Anne, after escaping from the asylum she was imprisoned in, seems sickly and pale to Walter as well as mad. She offers cryptic messages (like Lucy), and Walter notices that she may have been beautiful before her madness (also like Lucy). Her illness is not something to pine after, she is a harrowed shell of her former self, and her mutable identity is taken advantage of by Sir Glyde and Fosco who fake Laura’s death. This aversion to the Ill Girl trope makes Laura’s experience with it all the more visible. She is defined by her madness, not her fragility or femininity – she is the trope namer of the “Woman in White”.

Living in a tiny apartment together, Laura is tended by Marian and Walter, who despair about how ill and unlike herself she is. When she is worried that she’s a burden and not at all contributing, Walter assures her that he could sell her paintings (even though he only keeps them himself). She is portrayed as a tragic character, her beauty and frailty expounded upon with her post-asylum sickness, but like the sweet, tragic Ophelia from Hamlet, she remains static and one-dimensional. She has the opportunity to rise above her circumstances, but is kept in place as a porcelain doll to take care of. She is so close to crumbling into insanity like Ophelia does – only to be a reason for Walter to feel heroic. Unsurprisingly, she only regains her health when Walter and Marian’s circumstances start to improve, and she is almost back to her old when Walter and Laura finally marry.






Fade to White: Memory and Femininity in Collins’ Novel

The moment we are first introduced to the unspeakably lovely Laura in Collins’ The Woman in White, she is described as having golden hair that melts away and her aura is one of daintiness and fragility. Almost immediately, Laura is revealed as the embodiment of femininity and marriageability (according to Walter), directly juxtaposed with Marian’s sturdiness and refusal to go unseen. If not watched closely, Walter and Marian fear that she could fade away – physically in her health and mentally. In a novel so dependent on recalling details specifically, even Walter fears he’s forgetting her:

How can I describe her? How can I separate her from my own sensations, and from all that has happened in the later time? How can I see her again as she looked when my eyes first rested on her—as she should look now, to the eyes that are about to see her in these pages? (p39)

Here he cannot separate the different memories he has of Laura because they fade together. It is almost as if she is a blank slate on which to project Walter’s impressions and ideas of the future. At the same time, she is the connection to the past of Anne Catherick her appearance as a wisp in the moonlight harkens back to Walter’s strange meeting with her.

There stood Miss Fairlie, a white figure, alone in the moonlight…the living image at that distance and under those circumstances, of the woman in white!

Walter later notes that the likeness between Laura and Anne seems like casting a shadow on her future. Not only is Anne disordered by her perceived mental illness, but now she is corrupting the future of the fair Ms Fairlie. Now the likeness between the two of them darkly foreshadows what may happen to Laura.

It might be a stretch to make the claim that a perfect woman has a completely mutable future. Laura threatens to fade away, making her completely under the control of whomever is looking after her. Laura insists that Marian, our symbol of stability and permanence, receives her entire fortune, knowing that she has her best interests at heart. This inability to control her own life might be why the creepy Sir Percival is so insistent on receiving her entire fortune if (or when, as he sub-textually insinuates) something happens to her.

Furthermore, with the idea that Laura is capable of fading into memories, we can assume that Laura is the perfect candidate for a traumatic event. If a disordered woman is permanent and remembers painful memories (like how Anne’s trauma follows her around and expresses itself symptomatically), Laura’s possible future trauma (which will most definitely be related to Sir Percival) will be swept under the rug and walked over. Laura’s strict femininity will force her into doing the most important thing a woman can do after a trauma: stay silent and fade into the background. 



Bianca LoGiurato