Hysterical Utterance in Lucas Malet’s The Wages of Sin.

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This paper focuses on a late-nineteenth-century ‘fatal love triangle’ novel: The Wages of Sin by Lucas Malet (Mary St Leger Harrison). I examine the novel as a fictional depiction of hysterical symptoms and behaviours; the involuntary language of the body forming an alternative utterance when words fail. Hysterical utterances are introduced in the shooting and death-shriek of a rabbit and somatic reaction from the female protagonist Mary Crookenden. They are fully synthesised in the body of the stuttering male protagonist James Colthurst, and amplified to comment on problems of articulation and communication in society, defining a pathological mutism of the masses.

Malet’s novel is concerned with failings of speech and alternative utterances. She engages with the medical in her portrayal of stuttering, which, with accompanying analysis of 1890s medical articles, I read as a hysterical ‘conversion symptom’. The novel includes early psychoanalytic understandings of the role of trauma and repression in the creation of Colthurst’s compulsive death-drive, a fascination with falling from high places, but mingles science with more supernatural explanations involving dreams and clairvoyance. Colthurst’s existential, morbid musings project his own problems of utterance onto a wider social pathology, a struggle to communicate on a vast scale. His consideration of the ‘hideous jostling crowd of things struggling to be born; struggling to make themselves heard and felt’ reflects late-nineteenth-century anxieties about social Darwinism, overpopulation, and poverty as pathological.

I pinpoint hysterical episodes, 'fits', symptoms and behaviours in the novel, locating the axes of tension between mind and body, performativity and pathology. Examining this novel through a hysteria studies and medical humanities framework provides a new perspective on Lucas Malet’s depiction of the haunted, pathologised self, as constructed by cultural, political and medical understandings of the body.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 18 May 2017
EventGendered Voices SWW DTP conference - University of Bristol
Duration: 18 May 201719 May 2017


ConferenceGendered Voices SWW DTP conference


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