Nineteenth Century Hysteria and a Give Away!

Back in the 19th century, women developed, (in epidemic numbers, mind) an entire syndrome even doctors sometimes interpreted as a power grab rather than a genuine illness. This new disease was called “Hysteria.”

For example, my character Mrs. Dunnigan of Clear Creek, a character from the Prairie Bride and Prairie Groom series, uses hysteria on several occasions to get her way. Many authors have had their characters “afflicted” with this malady, but fiction is one thing. Reality another. Back in the nineteenth century, this new disease epitomized the fact that a lot of women didn’t have proper emotional outlets. Interestingly enough, the “disease” affected upper and upper-middle-class women almost exclusively. The “working class” were far too busy working to catch it. Naturally, it had no discernible organic basis and it was totally resistant to medical treatment. For those reasons alone, it was worth considering in some detail.

Doctors, however, were baffled. Hysteria appeared, not only as fits and fainting, but in every other form: hysterical loss of voice, loss of appetite, hysterical coughing or sneezing, and, of course, hysterical screaming, laughing, and crying. The disease spread wildly, yet almost exclusively in a select clientele of urban middle and upper-class white women between the ages of 15 and 45. Doctors became obsessed with this most confusing, mysterious and rebellious of diseases.

In a lot of ways, it was the ideal disease for the doctors. After all, it was never fatal and it required an almost endless amount of medical attention. On the other hand, it was not an ideal disease from the point of view of the husband and family of the afflicted woman. This put most doctors on the spot. It was essential to their professional self-esteem either to find an organic basis for the disease and of course cure it or to expose it as a clever charade. Women weren’t too happy when the latter occurred.

Doctors began to observe that many “afflicted” never had fits when alone, and only when there was something soft to fall on. One doctor accused patients of pinning their hair in such a way that it would fall luxuriously when they fainted. The hysterical “type” began to be characterized as a “pretty tyrant” with a “taste for power” over her husband, servants, children and, if possible, her doctor.

But doctors’ accusations had some truth to them. The “hysterical fit” for many women was the only acceptable outburst they had for emotions like anger, despair, or simply to expel pent-up energy. However, it would be years before men recognized women as anything other than sickly, weak and fragile.

Perhaps this is why we are so attracted to strong female characters of Western romances and other stories. Sure, we don’t mind if a heroine faints. But it’s more fun to watch her fight for what she wants. It’s hard for a woman of the 21st-century to relate to the hysterical fainting woman of the 19th-century. Though we do like to have them in a story or two, don’t we? Sometimes as the antagonist, sometimes as a secondary character. They’re still fun. Not only that but historically accurate in a lot of cases. To sum it up, if you lived in the nineteenth century, one could probably make a good living making fainting couches. My character Mrs. Dunnigan doesn’t own a fainting couch, she preferred to fall on the ground for a much more convincing effect. I’ll choose a random winner from the comments below to win a free copy of Her Prairie Knight, in which Mrs. Dunnigan uses hysteria like a pro, as you can see in this excerpt from Her Prairie Knight (Prairie Brides Book Two):

 

Now Belle’s laughter caught everyone’s attention, as she and Colin were over halfway down the trail. Some turned and waved at the newcomers, others headed over to greet them.

Mrs. Dunnigan also turned to look, with a huge smile on her face. Then the smile vanished. Her eyes widened, closed tight, opened and widened again. She snorted like an about-to-charge bull, threw down the serving spoon she held in her hand and took a few steps forward, glowering at the couple as they reached the bottom of the trail.

Belle and Colin didn’t notice. But they were walking toward Harrison and Sadie, who most certainly did.

Mrs. Dunnigan took one last look at Belle with Colin, glanced around herself and let fly with a noise somewhere between a wail and a locomotive whistle. Belle turned just in time to see her aunt drop to the ground in a faint that had it been on the stage, would have brought applause and some gasps from the audience. As it was, it did elicit a gasp from Fanny Fig, who threw up her arms in shock before making her way to her fallen friend.

Harrison would have been running to her as well if he hadn’t noticed Mrs. Dunnigan looking for the best possible place to land beforehand. He turned to Sadie, who stood with her mouth open in shock. “Oh, dear.”

“Auntie!” Belle exclaimed as she pulled away from Colin and dashed toward her aunt, who now lay in the grass on her back. Fanny Fig knelt beside her, fanning the unconscious form with her reticule, its long thin strings of beads hitting Mrs. Dunnigan in the face.

Harrison rolled his eyes at the scene. “Do you think they rehearsed it?” he asked his wife dryly.

Sadie was about to object to his cynicism, then stopped and thought about it. “Most likely,” she replied before making her way to the gathering crowd.

Colin, meanwhile, watched in exasperation as he joined his brother. He grinned despite himself. “Did you see that? I didn’t know Mrs. Dunnigan had it in her.”

“And I didn’t know our little picnic would come with a show.” Harrison laughed and put his arm around Colin. “Come along, dear brother. Let’s go see what she does for an encore.”

Colin’s face took on a more serious look. “Frankly, I’m afraid to find out.”

* * *

Aunt Irene’s eyes fluttered open as Fanny Fig continued her furious fanning/beating. Belle reached out and grabbed Fanny’s wrist to stop her. At this point, she was convinced her aunt hadn’t really fainted. Who could possibly stay insensate when one’s face was being whipped by beaded fringe?

“Doc Waller!” Fanny cried.

Belle looked at the faces of the townsfolk who’d gathered. Doc Waller wasn’t among them, but Grandma was. The old woman pushed her way through and bent to look at the patient. “You all right, Irene?”

Belle watched Aunt Irene moan and her eyes roll back.

“Someone fetch me a cup of water!” Grandma yelled.

“I don’t think she’s in any shape to drink anything,” Harvey Brown commented.

“I’m not going to have her drink it! Nothing brings a person around quicker than a cupful of cold creek water thrown in their face.”

Aunt Irene’s eyes fluttered once more. Belle closed her own eyes and sighed. How far was her aunt going to take this?

“Here ya go, Grandma,” Mr. Dunnigan said, handing her a cup.

“Land sakes, Wilfred! How’d you get this so fast?”

“Went to the creek the minute I seen her go down.”

Belle looked at her uncle, who didn’t seem overly concerned. It seems I’m not the only “doubting Thomas.” Oh, Auntie, really?

“Belle …,” Aunt Irene moaned. She sounded like she was auditioning for the part of the ghost in Hamlet.

“You want this?” Grandma asked Belle, shoving the cup at her. Belle took it. “If she closes her eyes again, toss it at her. She’ll come around.” Obviously, she suspected Aunt Irene’s faint was nothing more than theatrics as well.

Not all of the other townsfolk were so astute. “I’ll help you take her back to town, Miss Belle,” Harvey Brown offered.

“That’s mighty neighborly of you, Harvey, but I’ll take Irene back to town,” Uncle Wilfred replied. “No sense you missing out on any of the festivities.”

“Oh, well … if Miss Belle is going to be staying, I’d be happy to keep an eye on her, Wilfred.”

Belle stood as Harvey looked her up and down and smiled. Maybe she ought to toss the cup of water in his face …

“No need, Harvey – the Cookes will look after her,” Uncle Wilfred told him.

Aunt Irene moaned again.

Doc Waller finally showed up, a fishing pole in one hand, a lovely trout in the other. “What’s all the commotion?”

“Irene’s done ‘fainted’.” Wilfred drawled. “We’d best get her back to town.”

“Belllllle ….” Aunt Irene wailed. “I need Belle!”

Doc Waller handed his pole and fish to Harvey. “Let’s have a look.” He knelt next to Aunt Irene and began to examine her. “Any headaches lately, Irene?”

She looked at Belle. “Yes,” she moaned. “I think Belle should take me home and take care of me.”

Grandma snorted. “A young gal from Boston taking care of a sick woman? What does she know about doctoring? I’ll take you home myself and give you a good dose of castor oil! Trust me; it’ll fix you right up!”

Aunt Irene moaned again. “Belle! Belle, where are you?”

Belle was now having trouble keeping a straight face. She felt sorry for her aunt, stooping to such childish antics – but not so sorry that she wasn’t willing to have just as much fun with it as her uncle and the Wallers. “I trust your judgment, Mrs. Waller. If castor oil is what she really needs, then you’d best get her home and give her some.”

Her aunt perked up at that. “Oh, Belle, just take me home, will you? I’ll feel much better after I lie down.”

“You’re already lying down,” Grandma quipped. “Seems to me you should be feeling better already.”

Aunt Irene scowled. “Don’t tell me how I should feel! You’re not the doctor!”

“I agree with Grandma on this one,” Uncle Wilfred said with a chuckle. “Now let’s get you up and take you home.”

“But … but what about Belle?” Aunt Irene screeched.

“What about her?”

“She’s going home with us!”

“Why should she? She isn’t feeling poorly. Harvey, give me a hand, will you?” Harvey helped Uncle Wilfred pull her aunt up from the grassy ground. She stood unsteadily and tried to grab Belle for support, but Uncle Wilfred, God bless him, was quicker and grabbed her instead. “Belle will be in good hands with the Cookes and the Figs. And Colin can bring her home,” he added.

Belle couldn’t believe her uncle had said it. She could believe how quickly Aunt Irene’s face reddened in fury. The townsfolk backed up en masse.

 

Kit Morgan
Kit Morgan is the author of over 80 books of historical and contemporary western romance! Her stories are fun, sweet stories full of love, laughter, and just a little bit of mayhem! Kit creates her stories in her little log cabin in the woods in the Pacific Northwest. An avid reader and knitter, when not writing, she can be found with either a book or a pair of knitting needles in her hands! Oh, and the occasional smidge of chocolate!
Updated: November 19, 2018 — 4:55 pm

36 Comments

  1. Thank you for the very interesting blog and the excerpt which I really enjoyed.

    It’s unusual to see the name Belle which isn’t used now as it once was, but I have a family story about it I’d like to share. My grandparents couldn’t agree on a name for my mom when she was born, so they ended up going with Bettie. When my mom was in her 50s she wanted a passport so she sent for her birth certificate. Imagine her surprise when she learned my grandfather had filled out the form and named her Belle officially, obviously his choice. Her parents had passed by then but we laughed realizing that my grandfather always knew he’d had the last word. The second part of the story is that my grandfather’s dad knew Belle Starr in Indian Territory (we have various court records and the like and their farms were adjacent), so no wonder my grandmother didn’t want her daughter named for a woman who gave shelter to outlaws and who was jailed for horse theft. Belle is a perfectly respectable, old name from Latin used in several languages, but we all knew of my grandfather’s interest in Belle Starr.

    My son and I are the last of our family line, so thank you for letting me share this family story with you. I still shake my head to this day and smile at what my determined (read: stubborn, strong-willed) grandfather got away with. No one ever understood his interest in Belle Starr stories until after he was gone and I did a lot of genealogy work, learning that my great-grandfather had testified in Hanging Judge Isaac Parker’s court on Belle Starr’s behalf for that horse theft trial.

    1. Wow, Eliza! What a cool story! And your grandpa! Ha! What a guy! Thank you so much for sharing this with me!

  2. Wonderful informative blog. You’re book sounds amazing.

  3. I found this blog really interesting. Funny story, when I was a child I would use “hysteria” in the form of tantrums and fainting to get my way. (I was a very spoiled youngest child) lol Thankfully I grew out of my “hysteria” hahaha

    1. I know a few gals, Dale, that still use it! And they’re in their 60’s now! They never grew out of it, I’m afraid. It’s still in use today.

  4. Loved the blog very good history lesson

  5. Love the excerpt. Belle sounds like a determined woman. Thanks for the info regarding hysteria. Interesting.

  6. What a great post! I have never fainted.

    1. Me neither! I’d be afraid of what I might land on!

  7. I really learned a lot from your post today. I look forward to reading your book too.

  8. Had not realized “hysteria” was so widespread. Book sounds like a good read.

  9. I so enjoyed reading your blog and can picture you writing in your cozy cabin in the Pacific northwest letting your imagination develop into these creative stories. I will look for your books in our bookstore today.

    1. Most of my books are e-books, Kathy, though I have about 26 in print. They are printed through a division of Amazon so not sure if your bookstore can get them or not. They should be able to. The Cooke Brothers is a good one to start with and it includes Her Prairie Knight, the book where the excerpt comes from. And yes, I do like writing in my snug little cabin!

  10. Thank you for sharing your very interesting post.I always love visiting P&P.

    1. We love having you, Melanie!

  11. Interesting post I always enjoy reading this blog, thanks for sharing.

    1. And we all have fun writing it!

  12. I love this post, of course, I’ve heard of fits of hysteria but never had this much information on it. I’ve yet to read a book with a character that has fits if hysteria so I’d love to read your book! It’s sounds like a great read! Have a very Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. Yes, Mrs. Dunnigan is a master at it. And believe it or not, she is one of my most loved characters. My readers adore her, Including my narrator for my audiobooks. Of all of my characters, she is his favorite to perform, and he plays her to perfection! Have a Happy Thanksgiving too!

  13. Loved it! Oh yes, hysteria. A very good way for someone to get attention. I grew up in a household where there was no emotion allowed, so hysterics would have been grounds for being kicked out! LOL.

  14. Thank you for sharing this interesting post. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  15. What a fun blog, and quite thought provoking. We all laugh at the fainting women but we also know how hard it is to be heard sometimes. And how narrow the roles of the “lucky rich” women were at time. Anyway, Happy Thanksgiving and thanks for a fun read. I can’t wait to read the book.

  16. Glad you enjoyed the post, Sally. It was interesting to research!

  17. Wahahahaha! Oh my Kit! I was laughing so much while reading apart of this story. I really like books that makes me laugh and this book sounds like a book I really want to read.
    The info was very interesting because I never knew about hysteria was such a big deal in those days. I’d see women fainting in old movies and heard of fainting couches.
    I’ve never read your books before and I’m wondering if I’d have to read another book before Her Prairie Knight? Also where would I find your books in the bookstore?

    1. The best book to start with (that you should be able to order from your bookstore) is The Cooke Brothers. It includes the first three Prarie Bride books from the Prairie Bride series, including Her Prairie Knight. If for any reason you are unable to order the print version, Pam, let me know at authorkitmorgan@gmail.com. The second three Prairie Bride stories are found in Welcome to Clear Creek. The last book in the series, Christmas in Clear Creek, you should also be able to order at your bookstore.

  18. I remember learning about that at a mansion-turned-museum when they showed us the fainting couches.

  19. interesting post!

  20. Kit, you are so right. Women had to take their power any way they could because Lord knows they were pushed aside, walked on, and ignored for the most part. Treated as far beneath the men. But a lot of that fainting was due to the tightly laced corsets that cut off air intake. Again, by design because the men dictated fashion. I think they had an evil plan. HAHA! 🙂

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  21. Yes, and the men are still trying to dictate fashion! And yes, corsets had a lot to do with it. Though I’d be hysterical too if I had to wear one! LOL!

  22. Those making fainting couches must have made a bundle. Thanks for sharing.

    1. LOL, no doubt. Though I’ve always wanted one as I think they are very elegant looking.

  23. Delightful excerpt. It seems manipulation was as much a goal as attention and “blowing off steam” when fainting and hysteria was used. I love books with a sense of humor and this one has it if this excerpt is any indication. I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

  24. Fascinating, Kit. I may have to use this someday.

  25. Know what I love about this blog? All the fascinating historical facts I learn! That’s why I love to read historical fiction when it’s based on fact. Right now I am reading , Becoming Mrs. Lewis, based on fact of C.S. Lewis’s life and how he met his wife, Joy. Your post about hysteria is fascinating and I can see how it wouldn’t be considered lady like to express yourself in that time period. Such outdated thinking! Happy Thanksgiving!

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