If I lived in the 1880s or earlier I'd be put away or confined to my room for having a nervous disposition, for dissolving into madness when the world gets too much. Flights of fancy. Insanity. For wanting to be coddled and take to my bed, to be nursed and be idle.
was often the only way women of a certain class could escape from the
clutches of proprietorship. They didn't belong to themselves, they
weren't their own person. They were taught compliance and repression
and made to be so; overburdened in spirit, if not in body, and
having to answer to everyone - overbearing mamas, aloof papas,
hard-to-please husbands and children crying to be fed – in order to
set a good example, to uphold a moral accepted code of conduct and
seen very much to be doing so.
biddable, sensitive types when pushed to or beyond their limits have
a tendency to display erratic, illogical, irrational behaviour, often
deemed as 'out of character' or as a having a 'nervous crisis', but
was it? Is it? Weren't/aren't these 'symptoms' just a facet being
prohibited from being shown? Suppressed for so long that when they
erupt they surprise people. No, it must be the work of the devil or
the possession of a spirit. It wasn't possible that it could be
caused by feeling duty-bound to someone or something in their
home-bound life. The result: restricted even more to the home or
packed off to an asylum. Forever chaperoned.
must silently bear and not air their complaints. Particularly if they
were one of the haves and not the have-nots, one of the more pampered
with hired help and less need for economy. Yet, they were still never
their own property. The house was their domain, but it belonged as
they themselves did to their fathers, brothers, guardians or husbands
– passed on like an ancestral title from the care of one male to
another. Were men at fault or was it society? Both, because men were
society and didn't dare to or care to address it, and some women too
held these same views.
were a little better than children, seen and most definitely heard if
it involved the running of the household such as daily confabs with
Cook, or in the employ of suitable activities: piano playing,
cross-stitching, reading, talking about going to see and going to
plays. The dutiful daughter, the doting wife, the over-attentive,
ever-watchful mother. Driven out of their minds with boredom.
Consigned to charitable works, administering to those less fortunate,
usually women, under the direction of a man. Being dismissed by men
because they didn't have qualifications and despite the dissimilarity
in sex and differences in biology they knew better; supported by men
because they were judged without intellect and had no means of their
weaker, frailer sex. Prone to bouts of fatigue, listlessness.
Prescribed rest and an ordered life. Rigid routine or eternal
leisure. Looking after the needs of others rather than focusing
inwards on themselves.
a fair assessment? A fair summary of how it was?
not. I'd be lying if I said it was. It's the impression I've gathered
from historical fictional and non-fictional accounts, but then
impression is also formed by how I choose to see it. And that too can
however think it's naïve to assume those sensitive, highly-strung
types no longer exist, or are rarer in number; they're still here and
they're still hidden. There are still unspoken pressures and women
still want to, need to, long to escape. Yes, men now suffer, more
openly, too, but it's not the same. And some women do still carry
shadows of that almost-forgotten era: it's in their physical frame
and how their mind works, their temperament desperately tries not to,
yet betrays it. There's a nervousness, an edginess, a restlessness,
an uneasiness visible in their manner or pattern of speech, and this
tenseness cannot be relieved because they're still being squeezed by
a too-tight corset.
Further Reading: Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss
Picture Credit: In a Corset, 1910, Lovis Corinth