Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth Century Paris, By Asti Hustvedt

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Blanche Wittmann, Augustine Gleizes and Geneviève Legrand were celebrated faces in 1870s Paris. They were photogenic, undressed on queue and never failed to give the kind of mesmerising stage performances that had the French public queuing in droves.

Yet they were not trained performers, nor muses, but desperately ill women who had been admitted to the Salpêtrière Hospital. There, they became "medical celebrities" under the aegis of the famed neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot, an unorthodox physician whose showmanship and iconoclasm divided contemporaries but whose controversial theories transformed neurology and paved the way for psychoanalysis.

It was Charcot who masterminded the weekly stage performances attended by socialites, writers, painters and the young Sigmund Freud, at which these three women manifested chronic symptoms of hysteria, the most fashionable of Belle Époque illnesses, which had spread across Paris like a contagion. Such was Charcot's popular success that he was dubbed the Napoleon of neuroses and his triumvirate of Furies became vulnerable superstars.

Blanche was seen as the "queen of hysterics" for her susceptibility during Charcot's medical hypnotisms; Augustine became the "supermodel of the clinic" for her ability to hold a pose in the midst of a fit for photographers, and Geneviève was a Joan of Arc figure whose hysteria resembled demonic or divine possession. Hustvedt, a scholar of French literature (and sister of the author Siri Hustvedt), acknowledges Charcot as a maverick genius but questions his sadistic, sexually perverse methods on these "star" patients - women already scarred by an early life of poverty, sexual abuse and abandonment.

The thoroughly researched, very readable material brings to life their strange and remarkable stories, told in meticulous detail, as well as the brilliance and brutality of the great physician. In modern terms, his relationship to the women fell somewhere between a doctor and a circus ringmaster. A young Freud said: "Charcot had the nature of an artist. He was a visuel, a man who sees."

He certainly made a spectacle out of his subjects. His hysterics were heavily photographed (images of the three women are included). Sounds of gongs and tom-toms rung out as physicians pierced women's bodies with needles or "petrified" lethargic patients into different postures. The shows had a clear sexual element. Blanche was hypnotised and ordered to undress, to take a bath , to hike up her dress from an imaginary snake. In one scenario, "Mariage à Trois", she was told she had two husbands fondling her body on either side. The husbands were played by interns.

Augustine was photographed in a series of erotic raptures, dressed in a nightgown, lying on a bed. During these demonstrations, writes Hustvedt, science exploded into something else altogether.

Yet even given these unsavoury facts, there is little doubt that Charcot made great strides in legitimising an illness that was regarded as an unserious and exclusively female affliction. Hysteria related to the nervous system, he said, and men could be sufferers too, although real-life cases at the time were rare. His findings and flamboyant techniques earned the hospital a world-class reputation as a psychiatric centre. Those admitted to its wards included Jane Avril, a dancer at the Moulin Rouge and Toulouse Lautrec's model, who was escaping her mother's abuse, and who later wrote disparagingly of the hysterics ward, believing the women to be faking it.

Until Charcot began his work, this was a common misconception. Hysteria lay in the vacuum between a real and imagined illness. Late 19th-century positivists had rejected the Christian belief that sufferers were possessed by demons, and Freud's unconscious had yet to be discovered.

Charcot argued that while hysteria may not have an organic source, it was a disease which caused real physical pain. This was the same principle that led Freud to develop the unconscious. In fact, it is hard not to read Freud's work on hysteria, such as the case studies of Dora and Anna O, without seeing Charcot's influence. This concept was a radical one then, and remains so today, suggests Hustvedt. Yesterday's hysteria is today's depression, ME, eating disorders: "The grand hysterics of Charcot's clinic and Freud's couch have mostly disappeared, hysteria has survived, but in new incarnations."