Medical texts and other fictions

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Janet Beizer looks closely at hysteria in its cultural context

In the 19th century, hysteria was considered one of the most common disorders afflicting women. Doctors advised parents to keep their daughters from riding horseback, eating vanilla, or reading novels, for fear they might develop the condition. Janet Beizer, a Harvard scholar of 19th century French literature, was so struck by the pervasiveness of this theme that she decided to study the literary and cultural significance of the phenomenon. “I thought it was going to be about how novelists used the medical idea of hysteria, but I realized that the medical texts were just as literary as the novels. It seemed that the focus on hysteria was part of a larger cultural phenomenon.” Beizer discovered that hysteria (which, according to the ancient Greeks, occurred when a woman’s womb wandered around her body seeking its proper place) was seen by 19th century French physicians as a condition characterized by a woman’s inability to find her proper place in the world. “Women who became hysterical were women who strove for positions that were not considered right for them – too intellectual, too sexually indulgent, or too abstemious.”