You hardly ever hear about hysterics nowadays; analysts like to say that the illness has entirely disappeared, replaced by the more ubiquitous ‘personality disorder’, and the likelihood of chancing upon nice bourgeois ladies in the midst of fainting fits as you walk down the main street in town is very low. Yet a mere century ago, the hysteria epidemic raged across Europe and America. In France at least, one in five cases admitted to La Salpetriere in Paris – the general prison-cum-madhouse – was a case of hysteria, and as late as the 1950s, one American psychoanalyst declared that ‘if after five minutes with a patient you find yourself gripping the arms of your chair, then the patient is a hysteric.’ So where has hysteria gone? Well, the rush of novels about hysterics at the turn of the century suggests that hysteria was a very particular battleground in the war between the sexes; it arose as a form of female rebellion that was also an act of self-defeat, and came to be understood as an expression of all that a woman during that era could not say and could not do. Although medical evidence suggested that both sexes could be hysterics, it became irrevocably associated with women, due to its symptom portrait of hyposexuality, flirtatiousness, manipulativeness and extreme emotionality which doctors associated with an excessive, ‘negative’ femininity. The first wave of feminist thinking argued instead it was a response to extreme powerlessness and a misogynistic reading of women’s sexuality. In fact the symptoms were often more reminiscent of a feverish illness, and included hallucinations, nervous coughs, exhaustion and local paralysis. Freud cut his analytic teeth on hysterics, indeed, attributed his discovery of the unconscious to listening to their tales. He felt that the sign of a hysteric was an incoherent and discontinuous narrative. A story of gaps and lacunae and contradictions. Hysterics for Freud were resistance fighters, guarding a secret (in his opinion of a sexual nature – in the opinion of later feminists, of a political one) that he would patiently prise out of them. Once found, the story could then make sense. Mental health, for Freud, became equated with narrative coherency.
The figure of the governess holds a privileged position in hysterical stories, mostly because of the complicated relationship she must hold to the master of the house as asexual replacement mother. This is beautifully exemplified in Henry James’s classic tale The Turn of the Screw. It’s told as a ghost story recounted to a company of men sitting around a fire one evening at a country house, and it details the experience of a governess, sent by a mysterious Master to an isolated house called Bly. There she must care for two children, Miles and Flora, of whom he is the guardian. This Master demands that she take full responsibility for, and authority over, the children, for he does not want to be contacted by her for any reason. The governess proceeds to fall in love with the beauty and the purity of the children in a way that seems excessive and uncomfortably adulatory, although there are plenty of indications that the children are not especially innocent, not least Miles’s unexplained expulsion from his school. Shortly after her arrival at Bly the governess starts to see unexplained figures; a man on top of a tower, a woman by a lake, and then she sees the same man pressed up against a window, looking in. In her fear and anxiety she turns to the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, who identifies these figures as Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, former servants of the house, scandalous lovers, and now deceased. In the grip of a frenzy, the governess becomes convinced that the ghostly pair are after the innocent souls of the children, and her narrative takes on an increasingly hysterial tone as she mounts a campaign of vigilance against the spirits that sucks all around her in to a vortex of fear and suspicion. I won’t describe the outcome, but you’ll not be surprised to learn there are no happy endings.
The central ambiguity of the story, then, concerns the sightings of the ‘ghosts’. Are they ‘real’ and out to corrupt the children, or are they simply figments of the governess’s troubled, hysterical mind? The hysterical reading of the governess’s position is quite convincing: James makes us very aware of her inexperience and the heavy burden of responsibility which the Master places on her shoulders with no one other than the radically silly Mrs Grose to help her. He also makes us aware of the way she shoulders the burden out of a repressed love for the distant, unknowable Master. We could see then, how an excessive cultural demand for her own purity, as that Victorian cliché Virginia Woolf so despised, the Angel of the House, leads to a disquieting split of her own emotions. Romantic idealization, felt for the Master but with no place to go, becomes projected onto the children. Forbidden sexuality, felt for the Master but repressed for it has no place to go and is culturally despised, becomes projected onto the ghosts. Sexuality is utterly confused with evil in this tale, as the issue revolves around the suspected moral corruption of the children by the dubious duo of Quint and Jessel. Yet these are children who stand on the brink of adolescence, and the supercharged defensive instincts of the governess could also be seen as aimed to prevent the children’s natural development. That purity and innocence she so prizes will inevitably be lost as the children grow and take their rightful place as sexualized adults. The secrets that she fears Quint and Jessel wish to whisper in their ears will have to become known to them at some point or other. The essence of Quint and Jessel could be said to exist already within the children, and the governess’s attempt to eradicate it can be seen to have severe consequences for the health and well-being of Flora and Miles.
So there’s plenty of justification for reading this as a classic late nineteenth century tale of hysteria, except of course that the whole story is framed and played out on one level as a terrifying tale of supernatural phenomenon. Well over a hundred books and articles have been written around this slight story, arguing vociferously in both directions. Yet I think there’s an interesting middle way. Freud thought that hysteria was linked to narrative insufficiency, to an inability to tell a full story, to tell a tale that was full of gaps and inconsistencies. If we follow Freud here, then it’s possible to think of The Turn of the Screw as not simply a narrative that might be about hysteria, but as a hysterical narrative: one whose unresolvable ambiguity indicates an inability to tell itself clearly. The odd, ungraspable linguistic style of Henry James, and the indeterminate plotline that could be a ghost story or the account of a mental breakdown, seems to indicate a tale that cannot help but draw attention to its own internal contradictions. If this is a hysterical text, then the way we read it becomes an issue in itself. Do we, like Freud, attempt to fill in the gaps and assign the story a coherence it doesn’t have, by insisting we resolve the ambiguity and decide once and for all whether it’s a ghost story or a case history? Do we, in other words, need to cure the story? Or do we celebrate its very open-endedness, its resistance to any form of masterful analysis and allow it to maintain its paradoxes? Whichever it may be, it’s true to say that in good hysterical fashion, it’s a story that demands a response from the reader, who may well find themselves clutching the arms of their chair by the tale’s alarming climax.