Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Of Wandering Wombs and Wrongs of Women: Evolving Conceptions of Hysteria in the Age of Reason

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Of Wandering Wombs and Wrongs of Women: Evolving Conceptions of Hysteria in the Age of Reason

Article excerpt

ANNE FINCH'S PINDARIC ODE, "The Spleen" (1702), opens with a question: "What art thou, Spleen?" (1). Much of what follows in the poem is an exploration of the many faces of this malady (also known in the eighteenth century as melancholy, hypochondria, vapours, nerves, and hysteria). In one passage, the speaker describes two categories of spleen's victims:

   Whilst in the light, and vulgar Croud,
   Thy Slaves, more clamorous and loud,
   By Laughters unprovok'd, thy Influence too confess.
   In the Imperious Wife thou Vapours art,
   Which from o'er-heated Passions rise
   In Clouds to the attractive Brain,
   Until descending thence again,
   Thro' the o'er-cast and show'ring Eyes,
   Upon her Husband's softened Heart,
   He the disputed Point must yield. (50-59)

With great economy, Finch here captures several of the mysterious--yet distinct and prevailing--views of spleen's causes. The root source of its symptoms is unknown: spleen's "Slaves" at times exhibit "Laughters unprovok'd" for no apparent reason. The ailment may also be affected, as when the "Imperious Wife" assumes the common pose of the distraught hysteric in order to manipulate her husband. Finally, a disappearing, yet lingering, medical view--that the female version of spleen (usually called hysteria, or vapours) was based in woman's inherent bodily weakness--finds its way into Finch's poem. "Vapours" were thought to rise to the brain when women's already-excitable passions became "o'erheated," resulting in hysterical symptoms such as vast effusions of tears. Although Finch identifies some prevalent theories, she displays medical astuteness by refusing to endorse them unequivocally. She satirizes the feigned attack of the "Wife" and ultimately rejects physiological models; "Falsly, the Mortal Part we blame," the speaker asserts in an earlier passage, "Of our deprest, and pond'rous Frame" (26-27). By concluding with the death of a physician searching in vain for the true cause of spleen, she brings us back to the initial conundrum of her poem--that spleen is a "Proteus to abus'd Mankind, / Who never yet thy real Cause cou'd find" (2-3). Finch's poem therefore engages with eighteenth-century medical discourse. Moreover, the ode was admired in medical circles; the physician William Stukeley chose to include it in his 1723 treatise, Of the Spleen, calling it "[an] admirable poem on the spleen [which] I judg'd necessary to help out my own description of the disease."

As the example of Finch's work reveals, understandings of mental illness were not limited to the medical profession. This paper explores a dialogue that crosses the borders of literature and medicine by looking at accounts by women who were themselves victims of hysteria and by the doctors who studied and treated the disease. Te women and the doctors influenced and informed each other's theories throughout the long eighteenth century, I argue, and a version of hysteria emerges as a result of this dialogue. [1] Women's mental difficulties became aligned not with wandering wombs and inherently disordered female bodies but with the depressed social condition of eighteenth-century women--what Mary Wollstonecraft would term, in 1798, the "wrongs of woman." This transition is reflected, in part, in a selection of medical texts from the period (by physicians such as Thomas Sydenham, Bernard Mandeville, Richard Blackmore, Patrick Blair, and Robert Whytt), but it is most eloquently and comprehensively expressed in the poetry, fiction, and life writing of Anne Finch, Elizabeth Freke, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Hester Thrale Piozzi, and Mary Wollstonecraft. Together, these works reveal hysteria as a construct inextricably linked to changing views of women in the period. Although it was in many ways a real disease, it also operated as a powerful cultural metaphor, a catch-all that explained everything that was wrong with women: it confirmed their inherent pathology, their weakness, their changeability, and their inferior reasoning. …

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