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'Hysteria' - the condition and unbelievable treatments.

Updated on August 21, 2012

Hysteria, the Movie


The delighted chuckles and applause at the end of the 99-minute movie attest to ‘Hysteria’s’ comedic success.

A conventional treatment

Professor Jean-Martin Charcot teaching at the Paris Salpetriere, demonstrates hypnosis on a 'hysterical' woman ('Blanche' Wittman). She is in a trance or in shock.
Professor Jean-Martin Charcot teaching at the Paris Salpetriere, demonstrates hypnosis on a 'hysterical' woman ('Blanche' Wittman). She is in a trance or in shock. | Source
bloodletting in a 17th C. hospital.
bloodletting in a 17th C. hospital. | Source

The condition of hysteria

Tanya Wexler, the director, has treated an ancient female malady with wit and verve, eliciting waves of laughter throughout this movie. Until 1952, hysteria was a recognised medical condition of women who presented with symptoms of insomnia, overwhelming sadness, exhaustion, cramps, restlessness and ‘a crying need to be allowed to vote’. The disorder was thought to stem from a disorder of the uterus. The current cures were hypnotism, long warm baths and vigorous horseback-riding - and enforced hysterectomies and institutionalisation for severe cases.

Medical practice, 1880.

This is London, 1880, when bloodletting and snakeoil were the tools of the doctor’s trade and a forward-looking young doctor called Dr. Mortimer Granville was booted out of one hospital after another for practising and preaching hygiene. Handwashing is positively discouraged. The film begins with the good doctor being berated by his superior for changing a dressing on a putrid wound. For arguing with the superior, he is discharged and out of a job - again.

Handwashing, an anti-establishment activity in the 1880's.
Handwashing, an anti-establishment activity in the 1880's. | Source

At the house of hysteria.

He finds his job and salvation at the house of Dr. Robert Dalrymple, the foremost women’s doctor, the highest authority on hysteria. He treats the condition with manual massage to bring on ‘paroxymal convulsions’ to relieve their hysteria. This is considered a medical treatment. The lady's lower half is discreetly covered by a blanket . Dr. Dalrymple is highly successful and wealthy and needs an assistant at his practice.

Young, enthusiastic, handsome and popular Dr. Granville increases his mentor’s business severalfold, but his massaging hand eventually suffers from painful cramps. He dumps it in ice water and, when he commences to massage one of the wealthy clients with his iced hand, she roars her displeasure and Dr. Dalrymple dismisses him outright.

Dr. Granville and Emily
Dr. Granville and Emily | Source
Spitfire Charlotte looking at posters advertising her father's miracle cure for female hysteria.
Spitfire Charlotte looking at posters advertising her father's miracle cure for female hysteria. | Source

Opposites lock horns

Dr. Dalrymple has two beautiful daughters, as different from each other as chalk from cheese. The sweet, demure, dutiful Emily, who falls in with her father’s idea to marry her to Dr. Granville. Though they become engaged, they are not in love with each other, but it is the convenient thing to do. Then the firebrand charity-working suffragette Charlotte, ever the thorn in her father’s side, who tells Mortimer his patients are simply suffering from selfish, lazy, unimaginative louts of husbands who give not a fig for their wives’ needs. She asks him to help her establish a settlement for the poor, with a medical facility, instead of ‘pleasuring half the women of London’. He calls her ‘a confounding woman’ and declines.

Molly the Lolly, guinea pig for the vibrator.
Molly the Lolly, guinea pig for the vibrator. | Source

The Vibrator is born.

When he is dismissed by Dr. Dalrymple for his failure, Emily sadly says goodbye to him. He brings his woes to his friend, Lord Edmund St.John-Smythe, an amateur inventor. Playing with Edmund’s electric feather duster, Dr. Granville notices its pleasurable vibrations on his sore hand and conceives a medical use for it, if it could be reduced in size. And then: ‘whom shall we try it on?’ Molly the Lolly, an ex-prostitute dumped by Charlotte on her father to be a housemaid, is readily available. Thus is born the vibrator.

Success At Last.

When Mortimer Granville convinces Dr. Dalrymple to use it in his practice, it is an instant, blazing success. He and Emily become re-engaged and you might think that is the end of the story. But you would have reckoned without that gadfly Charlotte.

The Social Reformer and the Father

The firebrand social reformer fights for women’s right to be educated, to live unshackled by domestic drudgery. She herself works long hours for the poor women and children of London’s East End, pedaling her old bicycle, coaxing and cajoling money from her father for her shelter. Dr. Dalrymple abhors her association with the poor and she taunts him with making money treating imaginery ills of affluent women.

Hysteria on Trial

Reinstalled as the heir-apparent, Mortimer’s complacency is challenged by the outrageous Charlotte, who stops at nothing to keep her settlement house running. When she punches a policeman who is mishandling a poor woman on a trumped-up charge, she is arrested and tried by a legal system scornful of women. The only way for her to stay out of prison is to seek a diagnosis of severe hysteria, which will earn her the ‘lesser’ punishment of enforced hysterectomy and life in a mental institution. The Prosecutor bulldozes his way to a foregone conclusion of Charlotte's dire medical condition and the treatment for it. As an authority on hysteria, Mortimer has to testify.

Charlotte wins Dr. Granville
Charlotte wins Dr. Granville | Source

The doctor wins the right girl.

The testimony he delivers to the Bench and the legal system at large, upsetting all their apple carts, is worthy of an Oscar. Needless to say, Charlotte wins her freedom, Emily realises how insipid her own life has been, and sets Mortimer free, and Charlotte finds him waiting for her on her release from her temporary prison. He now is a wealthy man, in partnership with Edmund with the patent on the vibrator. He offers her the money for the settlement house of her dream, and seals the deal with an engagement ring which he offers on his knees.

Queen Vic gets hers

‘Hysteria’ the movie is a light British romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator,
which debuted during the height of Victorian prudishness. That old Queen Vic, at the end of the movie, receives her very own vibrator from the footman while barely hiding her smirk, is icing on the cake. That was the reason for all the delighted chuckles and the applause, and why nobody moved during the long running of the credits, which also showed stills of the multiple rebirths of the vibrator from the feather duster to the tiny portable home equipment of today.

About the movie

Credits: Tanya Wexler (director); Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Price, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Felicity Jones, Rupert Everett, Ashley Jensen, Sheridan Smith, Gemma Jones.

This is an Independent movie, and is only in select theaters. Some reviewers found it ‘fluffy’ comedy. It is a little naughty, always witty, but never dirty. Whatever the concensus of the professional reviewers, nobody could deny it was a highly enjoyable movie, showcasing the comedic talents of its cast, so go see it if you can. It’s a guaranteed feel-good movie, and might just cure an impending hysteria!

Hysterical women under hypnosis
Hysterical women under hypnosis | Source

Historical Footnote- from Wikipedia

Manual massage had been a medical treatment for women since antiquity, and hysteria was a recognised medical malady until the American Psychiatric Association discontinued this term in 1952. Since then women's brains have been recognised as a working component of their bodies and negative feelings as definitely not the offshoot of uterine disorders.

Joseph Mortimer Granville filed the first patent for the electromechanical vibrator in 1883. But his was used for treating muscular disorders, and was called Granville's Hammer. Later, other physicians used it to treat women's hysteria, with the financial success of the fictional Robert Dalrymple.


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    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      3 years ago from Oklahoma

      The things that scientific men have thought over the years, lol.

      Very entertaining hub.

    • mizjo profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from New York City, NY

      Would you believe it, I still have the occasional read of that hub for a chuckle?

      Thanks for the visit, Marylou.

    • profile image

      Mary Lou 

      6 years ago

      Wasn't it hilarious? Had a good laugh.

    • mizjo profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from New York City, NY

      Hello, Mhatter, thanks for dropping by.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      good job on this review

    • mizjo profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from New York City, NY

      Hello, Emily, you'll love it. Guaranteed.

    • profile image

      Emily Blaubberhaus 

      6 years ago

      Can't wait to see this movie :)


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