Blood and Hysteria in 1853

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference Paper


William John Anderson’s little-known speech of 1853, ‘Hysterical and Nervous Affections of Women, read before the Harveian Society’, differs significantly from other medical practitioners writing on hysteria in the mid-nineteenth century, in its insistence on ‘the intimate connexion which exists between the nervous and circulating systems’. Anderson determines that hysteria is caused by ‘improper quality of the blood’; toxicity, abnormal blood conditions, imperfect circulation of the ‘red globules’, or obstruction of the capillaries.

This paper examines Anderson’s talk alongside Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, also published in 1853. A novel profoundly concerned with nervous disorder, early reviews defined the narrator Lucy Snowe as ‘in a state of chronic nervous fever, for the most part’. I will consider metaphors of blood flow and numerous mentions of the heart and blood in Brontë’s novel. John Maynard holds that these indicate embodied sexuality: ‘the heart, especially, always associated with love and feeling, becomes in Villette a kind of sexual organ, a measure of the potency and warmth of the entire person’ (1984). However, to view the heart as a recurring metaphor for love and sexuality ignores the regularity with which it is described using medically-inflected language, alongside veins, capillaries, blood, and currents. Lucy observes her own physiological symptoms, and discusses the quality of blood, bloodlessness, and blood replaced by different fluids, suggesting a fascination with the functions of internal biology that surpasses the symbolic.

Both Anderson’s talk and Brontë’s novel are temporally positioned in the midst of a diagnostic shift that sought to delineate new physiological causes for hysteria. While Brontë was probably unaware of Anderson’s work, they exhibit strikingly analogous descriptions of the potential influence of circulation and aneurism on nervous disorder and external symptoms. I will argue that this reflects what Kirstie Blair defines as a nineteenth-century ‘shift in focus toward the pathological’ (2006).
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 27 Jul 2018
EventAnxious Forms conference 2018 : Blood Sweat & Tears: Bodily Fluids in the Long 19th Century - Aston University, Birmingham
Duration: 27 Jul 201827 Jul 2018


ConferenceAnxious Forms conference 2018
Internet address


Dive into the research topics of 'Blood and Hysteria in 1853'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this