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.