Vibrators, the New Women and One Naughty Queen: Film Review of ‘Hysteria’

by Fern Riddell (King’s College, London)

Since 2011, I have waited with bated breath for the release of Tanya Wexler’s new film Hysteria, which stars Rupert Everret as a sexually deviant, technologically gifted billionaire playboy – the Victorian Bruce Wayne of the sex aid industry – Maggie Gyllenhaal as a feisty, do-gooding, chest-beating early suffragette, and Hugh Dancy as a young, forward-thinking, if not always forward-looking, doctor with a great idea. With brilliant support from Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones, and Sheridan Smith as the archetypal ex-East End prostitute-come-maid ‘Molly the Lolly’, the film is an enjoyable exploration of the sexual attitudes of the later half of the Victorian period.

Hysteria is set around the invention of the first mechanical device used to manipulate women to the point of orgasm, ‘Granville’s Hammer’, and it’s inventor, Dr Mortimer Granville. However, that is where any similarity in the story and the truth about the early history of the vibrator, or the motivations of it’s creator, ends.


It’s always hard, for any historian, to watch a film set in the same historical place that your own research inhabits. You have to teach yourself to accept the excitable historical license often taken by filmmakers with characters, events, and sometimes basic chronological fact, in the pursuit of a marketable storyline. In contrast to the young, single, Dancy character in the film, Dr Joseph Mortimer Grandville was in his fifties when he invented ‘Granville’s Hammer’ and it was solely for the treatment of muscular spasms, female orgasms – or paroxysms – were the last thing on his mind. Granville himself, was perturbed by other medical practitioners using his machine in the treatment of female hysteria. In 1883, in Nerve-vibration and excitation as agents in the treatment of Functional disorder and Organic Disease’ he specifically stated that, ‘…I have never yet percussed a female patient…I have avoided, and continue to avoid, the treatment of women by percussion, simply because I do not want to be hoodwinked, and help to mislead others, by the vagaries of the hysterical state or the characteristic phenomena of mimetic disease.’

But once you’ve got past the historical inaccuracy you are left with is a film that deals with almost every single issue, from medical intrusion, lack of education, lack of rights and gender subjugation, to the portrayal of any stereotype surrounding women in the late Victorian period. And it’s really rather good. I’m going to ignore the male actors and characters, because they seem to almost fade into the background as objects in the narrative – appearing at points to shout either patriarchal Victorianistic rhetoric, or as earnest, socially aware, potential early feminists. Well, expect for Rupert Everrett, who has never lost the ability to stroll into any period drama, growl seductively at whatever person or object is opposite him, and leave you with the desperate belief that there really must have been Victorians like him if only you could get access to a time machine, and find out.

The film itself is set in 1880, and operates on the premise that almost everything that ever happened in Victorian Britain, happened in this single year. As it opens, recognizable character actresses of worth highlight the main symptoms of ‘Hysteria’ as a medical illness, ranging from depression, anxiety, sexual thoughts, and acute irritability. After Mortimer Granville is established as a young man of worth and forward-thinkingness, we meet our main female protagonist, and it’s Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Charlotte Dalrymple, screaming in her fathers surgery that women will not rest until they are welcomed in ‘the universities, the professions AND, the voting booth’. Clearly, she is a case of extreme hysteria – Jonathon Pryce and Hugh Dancy exchange worried looks. This is Gyllenhaal’s character throughout the film, she shouts, she rides the new style safety bicycle, she punches policemen, she rails against women’s place in the world and works tirelessly in the East End Settlement houses – in short, she is the universal historical suffrage movement in a single person, before the term ‘suffragette’ had even entered the public consciousness.

In contrast, her sister Emily is the most dutiful daughter, housekeeper and virtuous young women that any man could wish to know. Her father goes so far to refer to her as the ‘Angel in the House’, and while all nineteenth century historians in the audience groan at such labored identification, I’m pretty sure that if you looked up ‘Angel in the House’ in the dictionary, Emily Dalrymple’s picture would be next to it. Her character is the only woman to undergo any significant attitude change during the film. At it’s start she is an avid practitioner of Phrenology, which was an especially active moment of bad science amongst the Victorians. Her father encourages her interest in it but by the end of the film, when she decides to reject his attitudes towards how she should live, she also rejects Phrenology, the bad science and bad medicine of patriarchal Victoriana gone in a single moment.

Occupying a smaller role in the narrative, but an essential one that links the world of men and invention to the world of women and social reform, is Sheridan Smith’s character of the maid, Molly. Molly is an ex-prostitute – although the word ‘ex’ is used lightly – who has been reformed by Charlotte and given the respectable role of a maid in the Dalrymple household. When a test subject is needed for the new invention, who better that the morally debauched working-class woman, whose life has always occupied the place between the separate spheres?

Invention, and new technology, is another of the key elements of the film, from inclusion of the telephone, bicycle and the vibrator itself. But it’s not an element that is really pushed onto the audience, it fills instead a notably nuanced role in the background, as a prop in the hand of an actor, touching the screen with steampunkish brush, just enough to make any of the neo-Victorians watching smile. All of the little details in the film are utterly beautiful, from the intricate wallpaper in the wealthy parlors, to the sparse East End Settlement houses. This is not surprising as the historical consultant for the film was Alistair Bruce, who has also advised on The Young Victoria, The King’s Speech and Downton Abbey. All of these films have the same touch, beautiful sets and good cinematography that gives us a well-created and historical accurate world, which then has screen-writers and actors let lose within it.

Although, at times, the script makes historical references in a seemingly heavy-handed manner, there is an intense subtlety to the female characters and the roles they have. The film touches on, although it does not examine in detail, the utter fallacy of a medical profession that used hysteria to control and dominate the female populace, denying their state as sexual beings, yet using their sexual organs as a method for social control. This could – in the most extreme cases – lead to the imprisonment of a woman for life, and forced sterilization. Women’s role as the reproductive core of humanity, which some think was idolised in the pre-classical world, became man’s best reason for subjugating her. Yet this was not a Victorian invention. As early as the Greeks, the womb’s effect on female mental health was seen as the single most important factor when diagnosing women health. The Romans took the view that unwell married women just needed a good roll in the hay, and those not contracted to a man were advised to seek pelvic massage at the hands of a midwife. This idea remained influential throughout Europe right up to the 17th century, and is a feature of ancient medical advice in both the Eastern and Western schools of thought. So we can’t really blame the Victorians, they just took an old idea and industrialised it, mass produced it, marketed it and made devices for it. As they did with almost everything.

What is important to note about this period, in terms of the history of sexuality, is that it began to open up the debate on female desires, which in turn led to female voices being heard publically for the first time. The message from this period, and from the film, is one of the beginnings of a move towards an acknowledgement that woman had sexual desire, rights, and were equal to men. Hysteria is a well-acted and thoroughly enjoyable romp around the sexual ideas of Victorian London, and as it’s current limited cinematic release draws to a close, any historian with an interest in sexuality, gender roles, neo-Victorians and Victorian representation should try to see it.

Oh, and watch out for Queen Victoria, god she’s naughty.

Fern Riddell is a PhD researcher at King’s College, London exploring sexuality in London’s Music Hall’s 1850-1939. She has also been commissioned by Pen and Sword Publishers Ltd, to write a lighthearted guide to sexuality in the Victorian Era, coming out in 2014.

twitter: @FernRiddell


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