"The Poor Girl Sank Down Lifeless on the Floor" W.T. Smedley, 1885
Monday, July 28, 1862
Went up to Providence with Ma. Had my feet attended to. It made me faint away, so I stayed all night.
Tuesday, July 29, 1862
Did a little shopping in the morning. Went home in the afternoon train.
Wednesday, July 30, 1862
Wrote to William and heard from him. Went out do some errands. Mary Abbie came down to tea.
Thursday, July 31, 1862
Went up to the Smiths in the afternoon. What a silly girl Augusta Farley is.
Friday, August 1, 1862
William came in the heat. Carrie Dodge spent the day with me.
Saturday, August 2, 1862
Went up to the “lake” at Cold Spring. Had a very nice time.
Sunday, August 3, 1862
Went to Church in the morning. Had a dreadful quarrel with William in the evening.
I am intrigued by Sylvia fainting one day and going shopping the next. I am certainly guilty of romanticizing the 19th century faint. It creates such a compelling mental picture that as I think about it, it is now inspiring an actual picture I see a woman ensconced in yards of silk taffeta and lace, lying back on her recamier sofa, with a delicate gloved hand over her forehead, in quiet repose.
I have read about hysteria and 19th century nervous conditions in women. The Yellow Wallpaper is one of my favorite books, but Sylvia’s entry made me think about fainting in a much more theoretical way. What did fainting actually mean in the19th century? What inspired my curiosity was not the causes of why women fainted, but more profoundly, how did they even know to faint?
Why did women faint so often then and were able to shop the next day, such as Sylvia did, when fainting today is so rare that when it happens it is likely the result of a more serious medical condition, one that would make shopping the next day highly unlikely.
According to an article written by Juila Borossa on the Freud Museum Website:
As an illness, hysteria has had a long-standing association with the feminine. Although male sufferers were, at times, identified and discussed, it has primarily been seen as a women’s disorder. A key aspect of hysteria’s manifestation was that it involved the sufferer’s body, in a way that was changeable, and could not be put down to any tangible cause. Some of the classic symptoms of hysteria included: a feeling of suffocation, coughing, dramatic fits, paralysis of the limbs, fainting spells, but also sudden inability to speak, loss of hearing, forgetting one’s mother tongue, being proficient in languages that one did not know one knew, persistent vomiting and inability to take in food. In sum, it was a disease which appeared irrational, untrustworthy, and difficult to control.
According to the Regional Mental Health Care London Museum:
Victorian society emphasized female purity and supported the ideal of the “true woman” as wife, mother, and keeper of the home. In Victorian society, the home was the basis of morality and a sanctuary free from the corruption of the city. As guardian of the home and family, women were believed to be more emotional, dependent, and gentle by nature. This perception of femininity led to the popular conclusion that women were more susceptible to disease and illness, and was a basis for the diagnosis of insanity in many female patients during the 19th century.
On the basis of Victorian gender distinctions, it was common for female patients to be diagnosed as suffering from hysteria. 19th century upper and middle class women were completely dependent on their husbands and fathers, and their lives revolved around their role as respectable daughter, housewife, and mother. With so little power, control, and independence, depression, anxiety, and stress were common among Victorian women struggling to cope with a static existence under the thumb of strict gender ideals and unyielding patriarchy.
Cultural information and stories affect both the conscious and subconscious, so I am interested how the literature of the time period discussed women’s fainting.
Did Godey’s Lady’s book write about fainting? How did the popular fiction represent this issue? Did the publications that women were reading impact this issue? Did women faint because they knew other women were fainting? This last question is my working hypothesis.
I was not surprised when I googled “explanation for women’s fainting in the 19th century” and discovered that someone else indeed was interested in the same questions that I am now exploring in this post. I am thrilled to find this fascinating article in the Nineteenth Century Scholarship Online (NINES) site that I am attaching the link to, as well as excerpting a passage from:
In 1899 Gwynn published an article in Cornhill magazine called “The Decay of Sensibility.” 1899 was the tail-end of the Victorian Era so this guy had some perspective on what had been happening during the time period. He defined “sensibility” as the rapturous, exaggerated joy the characters felt, their “copious tears,” hysterics, and fainting fits. His idea in this article was that women were fainting because their favorite heroines did. He credits the Brontë sisters with putting a stop to all that nonsense. He wrote, “It was only when woman herself took up the pen and began basely to open men’s eyes to a sense of the ludicrous in this particular situation [fainting all the time] that all these tender susceptibilities shriveled like a maidenhair fern exposed to an east wind, and man began to revise his position” (Gwynn 30). So, he thought that as female writers gained power and popularity they also had the cunning to put a stop to womankind’s hysterical antics.
Sylvia’s entry has inspired me to research the cause of fainting in the 19th century. I want to strengthen my hypothesis. However complex my new ideas on women’s fainting will become, I can promise you this, there will still be that romantic photograph made of Sylvia post-faint in Providence. After all, this is coming from a woman that, while recovering from a respiratory infection, a friend remarked:
It looks like you are dying of consumption.
Gleefully, I smiled at her observation and took it as a compliment. After all, it is hard to kill 19th century romanticism for me.