Friday, May 30, 2014

Sensational 19th-century images of women under duress

I loved this Flavorwire feature on lavish period illustrations for books by Émile Zola, Eugene Sue, and Victor Hugo. Hugo is one of the authors featured in Gilded Youth: Three Lives in France's Belle Époque, while you can sample fellow French writer Honoré de Balzac's La Comédie Humaine series with At the Sign of the Cat and Racket: The Comedy of Human Life, Volume VII. Illustrations for Balzac's works have never been lacking, including the famous Granville image of the author surrounded by his characters.
David Kennedy Jones commented in the New York Times Magazine that Hustvedt's book exposes at "a country that had for generations channeled its anxieties and vices through the sensationalized form of the hysterical female."
Equally lurid in its own way is Asti Hustvedt's Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris, which the Telegraph calls "thoughtful and engrossing." Kathryn Harrison wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "readers who can’t identify Jean-Martin Charcot as the name of the French neurologist whose 19th-century experiments with hypnosis influenced Sigmund Freud’s theory of neurosis may yet recognize the work he conducted at the Saltpêtrière Hospital in Paris. Photographs and illustrations of Charcot’s patients, all women suffering hysteria, remain in currency today, 140 years after they were made, if more as curiosities than as clinically valuable documents.... If [Charcot's] therapies were not purposefully misogynistic, they were imposed, Hust­vedt shows, by 'healthy, educated and bourgeois' male doctors on 'diseased, uneducated and lower-class' women who had been committed, often for life, to a warehouse for not only the mad but also the homeless, the pregnant and unwed, and others who refused to abide by the conventions of a stifling society — in other words, the same disenfranchised women who, centuries earlier, might have been tried and executed as witches."
Writes The Guardian: "One side-show, in a book already packed with wonders, is the story of Jean Avril (later to be painted by Toulouse-Lautrec) who was an inmate at Salpêtrière, and was, as she proudly said, '"among the great stars of hysteria.'  She described their petty rivalries and how they competed for lead parts in Charcot's demonstrations. Even when Charcot was alive, some suspected Blanche was performing a script authored by the doctor himself; others felt she was a fraud, deceiving everyone including Charcot. In fact, he developed his understanding of the illness with her; his interest in hysteria coincided with her arrival at the hospital as a very disturbed young women. In an absurd parody of the doctor-patient relationship, Charcot's patients were not there to be cured, but to improve their ability to be ill: to learn how to become better hysterics."

1 comment:

  1. Fainting spells, the "vapours", like hysteria, were ways the "weaker sex" had of gaining some control. Today these maladies seem to have cured themselves, but anger management is the new vogue. Perhaps now the "stronger sex" is feeling the pressure.