Nervousness In The 19th Century Essay

1545 words - 6 pages

Nervousness was a condition described, according to Dr. George M. Beard, “strictly deficiency or lack of nerve-force” (American Nervousness, vi) in the 19th century. Nervousness at the time, was commonly acknowledged and accepted, so much so that it was written into literature, such as many of Jane Austen’s works. Many doctors considered nervousness to be a “woman’s disease” meaning that women were the most afflicted by this condition. Doctors of the 19th century have found excuses to restrict, restrain, objectify and metaphorically and literally lock women away, more specifically with the diagnosis of nervousness and other diseases that branch out from “the nerves”.
Dr. George M. Beard’s book, American Nervousness published in 1881. At the time doctors thought American’s were too tense and most cases of nervousness appeared in America, Beard’s book focuses on this. In his work he comments on the causes and consequences of American nervousness. Beard states that nervous diathesis, “includes those temperaments, commonly designated as nervous, in whom there exists a predisposition […]” (Beard, 25). Though in his book Beard relates nervousness to both men and woman, Beard clearly states that women are the most afflicted with nervousness. The end of chapter two focuses on beauty in relation to nervousness. Beard describes at length about American versus English beauty. What appears to be scientific, observational and enlightened is merely a description of his fascination of women, more specifically of American women and his romantic enchantment with them. The next section discusses the relation of dress to nervousness. Beard recounts a discussion with a psychologist, “A psychologist once asked me, ‘Why are bright colors beautiful in sunset, but out of taste in dress? Why should it be a sign of coarse taste to dress one's self in the most brilliant colors, when all go to see an imposing sunset?’” (Beard, 73) Beard concludes, “Loudness of dress is, therefore, justly regarded as proof of coarseness of nerve-fibre” (Beard, 74). Women dressed too loudly is one clear symptom of nervousness or lack of nerve force. Women of the 19th century were already restricted in fashion having to wear corsets tight-laced to eighteen inches, creating the hour glass figure to attract men. Women’s fashion was constructed to be submissive and having medical practitioners supporting and even adding to the submissiveness of women’s fashion just subjected and restricted women even more. The corset could cause an array of medical problems such as: fainting, coughing and respiratory problems, displacing internal organs and miscarriages. Women were locked up in a body cage, literally restricting themselves from movement.
Women who acted outside of social norms were often diagnosed and in many cases sent to an institution or in severe cases, an asylum. These unusual behaviors included, but are not limited to: depression, hypochondriatic behavior, anxiety, epilepsy,...

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