In Victorian England doctors called it “female hysteria” – a catch-all diagnosis applied to women with symptoms ranging from insomnia, anxiety and frigidity to irritability, anger and frustration.
Tania Wexler’s light-hearted film “Hysteria” shows how the recognised treatment of afflicted women – the doctor manually massaging the woman’s pelvic area to induce “paroxysmal convulsions” – led to the invention of the electric vibrator.
The film is loosely woven around Dr Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), who produced the first electric vibrator in the 1880s – but the historical background is soon overtaken by a fictitious romance between Granville and his employer’s beautiful and dutiful daughter (Felicity Jones) and then with her fiery suffragette sister (a sparkling Maggie Gyllenhaal).
As a struggling young doctor, desperate for work, Granville gratefully accepts a job offer from Dr Robert Dalrymple (Jonathon Pryce), who maintains that half the women in London are suffering from hysteria and who is barely able to keep up with the demand for intimate massage.
Granville proves an adept pupil until he develops such a severe repetitive strain injury in his massage hand that he is unable to continue. Luckily a friend who is passionate about the emerging science of electronics invents a rotating electric feather duster which proves readily adaptable into a vibrator.
The new machine saves Granville’s hand from further stress and works wonders for his grateful clientele.
The film is set in Victorian London with handsome sets and stylish photography. It is an enjoyable romp which shows just how far medicine has progressed in the past 130 years, from an era where germs and cleanliness were ignored and leeches and bleeding were common remedies.
Back in the 1880s a woman whose “hysteria” did not respond to treatment was liable to be interned in an insane asylum and forced to undergo a hysterectomy. It was not until 1952, more than 50 years after Granville’s death, that the American Psychiatric Association concluded that female hysteria was a myth, not a disease.
Hysteria opens July 12 at the Windsor Cinema and Luna on SX