Hysteria Complicated by Ecstasy: The Case of Nanette Leroux

Hysteria Complicated by Ecstasy: The Case of Nanette Leroux

Hysteria Complicated by Ecstasy: The Case of Nanette Leroux

Hysteria Complicated by Ecstasy: The Case of Nanette Leroux


Hysteria Complicated by Ecstasy offers a rare window into the inner life of a person ordinarily inaccessible to historians: a semiliterate peasant girl who lived almost two centuries ago, in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Eighteen-year-old Nanette Leroux fell ill in 1822 with a variety of incapacitating nervous symptoms. Living near the spa at Aix-les-Bains, she became the charity patient of its medical director, Antoine Despine, who treated her with hydrotherapy and animal magnetism, as hypnosis was then called. Jan Goldstein translates, and provides a substantial introduction to, the previously unpublished manuscript recounting Nanette's strange illness--a manuscript coauthored by Despine and Alexandre Bertrand, the Paris physician who memorably diagnosed Nanette as suffering from "hysteria complicated by ecstasy." While hysteria would become a fashionable disease among urban women by the end of the nineteenth century, the case of Nanette Leroux differs sharply from this pattern in its early date and rural setting.

Filled with intimate details about Nanette's behavior and extensive quotations of her utterances, the case is noteworthy for the sexual references that contemporaries did not recognize as such; for its focus on the difference between biological and social time; and for Nanette's fascination with the commodities available in the region's nascent marketplace. Goldstein's introduction brilliantly situates the text in its multiple contexts, examines it from the standpoint of early nineteenth-century medicine, and uses the insights of Foucault and Freud to craft a twenty-first-century interpretation.

A compelling, multilayered account of one young woman's mental afflictions, Hysteria Complicated by Ecstasy is an extraordinary addition to the cultural and social history of psychiatry and medicine.


Begun as a jeu d’esprit, this book took longer to complete than I ever imagined. I probably should not have been surprised. From the outset, I envisioned the book as twofold: an essay in microhistory and, ancillary to it, a more traditional effort of text editing and translation. Despite my initially playful attitude, I had chosen a very labor-intensive format.

As a microhistory touching on early nineteenth-century French and Savoyard medicine, law, politics, gender relations, spas, animal magnetism, and time-telling devices (to offer only a partial list), the book has required indepth investigations of a far-flung sort—some of them archival in nature, some arcane, each fascinating in its own way. Because that microhistory was based on a never-finished and (it turned out) somewhat jumbled manuscript that I had discovered at the Institut de France, it required me to engage in intricate textual detective work—work that has given me increased respect for the founders of the modern historical profession, who pioneered these techniques. Also thorny were the theoretical aspects of the microhistory, especially those dealing with the puzzling treatment of sexuality by the authors of the original manuscript.

Now that the book is completed, I am finally able to record in print my gratitude for all the help, institutional and personal, that I received along the way.

As befits a jeu d’esprit, serendipity played a large role in launching this project. I might never have pursued the project at all if Terence Murphy had not encouraged my impulse to have the Leroux manuscript microfilmed shortly after I encountered it at the Institut de France. I might have left that microfilm to gather dust had Muriel Dimen and Adrienne Harris not invited me to take part in an interdisciplinary conference at New York University in honor of the centenary of the publication of Breuer and Freud’s Studies on Hysteria. Quite by chance, Brigitta van Rheinberg, then history editor and now editor-in-chief at Princeton University Press, visited Chicago just after I returned from that conference, and her immediate enthusiasm for the nascent Leroux project resulted in a book contract.

Most of my early work on the Leroux case was done in time “stolen” from another book project. But only an uninterrupted year of writing enabled me to produce a complete draft of the book. That wonderful year was provided by . . .

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