Hysterical Bodies and Narratives
: Medical Gothic and Women’s Fiction, Victorian to Contemporary

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


This thesis explores the narrativisation of medical hysteria in women’s prose fiction. Through five case studies from the Victorian to the contemporary, I define a medical Gothic that materialises around the topic of the protean symptomatology of hysteria, and the figure of the hysteric, an enduring symbol of the unruly female body. I draw out the intense focus on physiology, a medically-inflected language of Gothic pathology, and an interest in the vagaries of the nervous system. These writers are interested in the role of language in controlling or liberating the female body, appropriating medical discourse in order to challenge stereotypes about women’s bodies and social roles. I track hysteria’s development as both a pathology and a metaphor. Close readings of original medical texts reveal the literary techniques used in the construction of the disorder, which in turn demonstrates the anxiety and performativity of medical authority.

My study begins with an analysis of nervous disorder in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853). Chapter Two looks at pathological blushing in the novel Nancy (1873) and other symptoms in short supernatural fiction by Rhoda Broughton. Chapter Three examines Lucas Malet’s The Wages of Sin (1891) and The Survivors (1923), novels which thematise hysterical bodies and spaces of illness, surgery and death. Chapter Four highlights the bodily grotesque and the intracorporeal landscape in Djuna Barnes’s Ryder (1928) and Nightwood (1936). Finally, Chapter Five interrogates a contemporary depiction of the hysteric in Helen Oyeyemi’s The Opposite House (2007) and White is for Witching (2009). Writing as they are in different historical contexts, these authors present a tradition of medical female Gothic that, much like hysteria, is mutable and disorderly, responds to changing cultural stimuli, refuses to adhere to a fixed set of conventions, and has at its centre the ambivalent figure of the hysterical body.

Key words:
Body, Cultural, Disorder, Female, Fiction, Gothic, Hysteria, Language, Medical, Medicine, Narrative, Nervous, Pathology, Social, Symptoms, Victorian, Women.
Date of Award24 Mar 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorSamantha Matthews (Supervisor) & Tara K Puri (Supervisor)

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