The Victorian Period: Menstrual Madness in the Nineteenth Century

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication'And Then the Monsters Come Out'
Subtitle of host publicationMadness, Language and Power
EditorsFiona Ann Papps
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherInter-Disciplinary Press
Pages74-86
Number of pages8
ISBN (Electronic)978-1-84888-323-9
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2014
This chapter will reveal how cultural beliefs and superstitions associated with the
female body, as communicated by the medical profession, had a profound impact on the image of the mad or violent women in nineteenth-century texts. The theory of menstrual madness held a tight grip on the understanding of even the most prominent of nineteenth-century physicians. Dr. William Rowley, professor of medicine at Oxford University and member of the Royal College of Physicians, eagerly wrote of the ‘passio hysterica’ repressed menstruation, or amenorrhea, could bring about in women in 1800: ‘The tongue falters, trembles, and incoherent things are spoken; the voice changes; some roar, scream or shriek immoderately; others sigh deeply, weep or moan plaintively.’1 Menstruation, in whatever form it took was considered dangerous because of its associations with madness and the mysterious condition known as ‘hysteria.’ Dr Jacobi wrote in 1868 that ‘At such times, a woman is undoubtedly more prone than men to commit any unusual or outrageous acts.’2 Whilst medical texts argued that menstruation weakens the body, their continual references to madness, violence, irrationality and superstitious associations with the moon, suggest otherwise. This chapter will focus on representations of mad women, such as Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre, as well as the violent murderesses of Victorian sensation and crime fiction and show how their ‘madness’ is linked to sociological constructs of the body and in particular, to menstruation. I will explore the nineteenth-century idea that all women have the capacity for menstrual madness within them and were culturally repressed as a result. I intend to reveal a link between medical understanding of menstruation and the representation of women as unstable in literature.

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