Female Hysteria and the Reading of Fiction during the Victorian Era.

Forbidden Books by Alexander Mark Rossi 1897.

A well-used trope within the Gothic genre is ‘madness.’ This occurs to both men and women within Gothic Fiction, but women seem to become more prone to such an illness. This might be due to what was perceived as their role as wives and mothers, and the possibility of going through what was termed ‘female hysteria.’

During the 16th and 17th centuries, it was believed female hysteria was caused from sexual deprivation. It was not until the 18th century, that physicians began to associate hysteria as a mental illness. It was considered a disease and included such symptoms as anxiety and insomnia. In extreme cases a woman would be sent to an asylum or undergo a hysterectomy.

In The Ghost at Willow Creek, Eleanor’s husband is worried about her mental health due to her talk of ghosts. Novel reading is believed to be the cause behind her hysteria.

Admission into an asylum for women was wide ranging.

As patriarchy was the dominant way of life during the Victorian era, women who read fiction were looked down upon, leading to much discussion amongst medical practitioners.

American physician, John Harvey Kellogg believed that reading certain books were acceptable for women, including history, biography, and authentic accounts of experiences in real life, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These would not do a woman any harm; however, he considered many novels were ‘wholly unfit for the perusal of young ladies who wish to retain their simplicity of mind and purity of thought.’

It was believed that popular novels contained ‘depraved characters’ and reading fictitious literature was unhealthy, which could cause damage. It was therefore up to mothers to remain diligent with their daughters to guard against injury and possible ruin. He believed that novel reading, if left unchecked, could become as ingrained as the use of liquor or opium.

In the Library by Auguste Toulmouche, 1872.

Doctors, like Kellogg, thought that the reading of novels created numerous nervous disorders in women, hysteria for example, and that reproductive problems could result.

The medical profession created the term ‘female hysteria’ to explain the differences between the two sexes, when in fact it highlights the lack of medical knowledge of the female body at the time. Such terminology would only go on to contribute to the prejudices against women, therefore continuing the role of patriarchy within the Victorian era.

*Source: ‘Gendered Pathologies: The Female Body and Biomedical Discourse in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel’ by Sondra Archimedes.

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