The Nervous Distress of Victorian Age: Hysteria in Charlotte Bronte's Villette

Nagy, Alexandra
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In the Victorian period, the psychological distress mostly known as ‘hysteria’ “a pathological condition with fascinating and tortuous medical and cultural history.” (Scull 6.), could be found in numerous households, diagnosed in women (although there were instances where this problem showed its signs in men as well). Until the 19th century, hysteria had been associated with physical or organic causes. In the Victorian period, this order's diagnosis shifted towards the idea that it is instead a mental illness. Based on this idea of “the triple cornerstones of Victorian psychiatric theory and practice”, in my paper, I shall discuss how Charlotte Brontë’s 1853 novel Villette reflects upon the time’s mental illness (hysteria), and how the novel can be interpreted in another light if we read it as if it were located in a mental hospital. The starting point of my investigation is that Madame Beck’s boarding school can be considered as the core institute of the mental hospital, with Madame Back as a nurse or warden; M. Paul, Père Silas, and Dr. John play the role of the doctors (each of them using different techniques to “cure” Lucy), and last, but not least, Lucy is the main patient of the institute.
Asylum, Hysteria, mental health, 19th century, Charlotte Bronte, Villette