Gothic Metaphor and Nervous Disorder in Medical Texts and Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853).

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This paper examines representations of female nervous disorder in mid-nineteenth century medical texts and in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. I argue that a hybridised language of “Medical Gothic” is employed by both women’s fiction and medical practitioners in narratives of hysteria.

Villette is a novel profoundly concerned with nervous disorder. Its Gothic themes – the ghostly nun, live burial, surveillance – are explained by the protagonist’s nervous constitution. Brontë engages with multiple causes of hysteria postulated in medical texts, such as sexuality, blood flow, digestion, and weather, developing a medicalised Gothic language that permeates the novel beyond its obvious Gothic tropes. Villette is exemplary of a hybridised Medical Gothic, absorbing and exploring medical interpretations of hysteria in relation to internal biology, external symptoms, and the interior self.

Concurrently, medical texts about nervous disorder make use of Gothic metaphor for impact and narrative effect, even as they engage in an ostensibly rational taxonomic project of categorising and “fixing” disorders in language. This paper looks at Thomas Laycock’s Treatise on the Nervous Disorders of Women (1840), and Robert Brudenell Carter’s On the Pathology and Treatment of Hysteria (1853). These texts explain ghostly visions as a nervous symptom, live burial as a result of apparent death in states of hysterical catalepsy, and how to navigate the battle of wills between devious female patient and rational male doctor. Hysteria is described as a labyrinth, tangled web, cloven foot, unclean spirit, demonic element, or haunted house, for the medical professional to thread, unfold, reveal, or exorcise.


ConferenceInternational Gothic Association conference 2018
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