Thursday, 12 November 2015


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.
Hysteria 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.
More 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.
Females 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.
Women 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 own independence.
The 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.
Is that a fair assessment? A fair summary of how it was?
Probably 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 change.
I do 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