Hysteria – Enjoyment at its peak.

Female hysteria was a once-common medical diagnosis, made exclusively in women, which is today no longer recognized by modern medical authorities as a medical disorder. Hysteria was widely discussed in the medical literature of the 19th century. Women considered to be suffering from it exhibited a wide array of symptoms including faintness, nervousness, sexual desire, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and “a tendency to cause trouble”.

All of this is true, including the fact that “manual massage” was the treatment for hysteria. It is also true that  Joseph Mortimer Granville filed the first patent for an electromechanical vibrator termed Granville’s Hammer in about 1883. Granville, however, did not apply his invention in the treatment of hysteria; rather, he used it to treat muscular disorders. Other physicians started to apply the vibrator for the treatment of hysteria. It was as late as an astonishing 1952 that the term hysteria was removed from the medical dictionary as a form of quackery.

This is a cute little piece of nonsense of a film, that never EVER takes itself seriously and therefore gets away with a load of fun and light-hearted pleasures. It is essentially the story of the first vibrator.  The film opens with “this is a story based on true events. Really.” This completely sets the tone for the lighter-than-light ribaldry of a time when Doctors genuinely felt that massaging a woman on the clitoris till she orgasms was a medical treatment for pretty much any disorder you can imagine – even those a man may experience. Because it was a “known fact” that women never derived any pleasure from sex, it never occurred to these scientists that they were simply administering orgasms. And of course this nonsense went on for years.

Accompanying the time the first vibrator was invented, the first suffragettes were fighting for the right to vote, and in this film they have decided to place the two events side by side.  Interestingly the film also depicts Doctors as fairly backward individuals, refusing to entertain newfangled theories like germs existing or the passing on of disease.  In the movie, the young physician Dr. Mortimer Granville gets a job to help Dr. Dalrymple who runs a successful practice treating women. He seems to be good at massaging, getting a sizable following. The job is strenuous and his hand musculature is unable to keep up with the task. Fortunately, his friend Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe has developed an electrical duster, and its vibrations give Dr. Granville the idea to modify the gadget. As such, the vibrator enters the stage as a medical device for the treatment of the condition. Parallel to this story Dr. Granville seems to develop a liking for the demure Victorian girl Emily Dalrymple, before falling in love with her older sister Charlotte, a premodern feminist firebrand.

There are some lovely, silly, funny lines in this irreverent and light-hearted film. Dr Dalrymple describes his work bringing women to orgasm as “tedious” work, and several of the women encourage the Doctor to “hurry up” and “come on” as he keeps trying to stimulate and misses the spot.  With the vibrator comes the discovery of multiple “hysterical paroxysm” in the women.  Another cute twist (that we all know is based on truth) is that the lower classes were never fooled into thinking this was a medical condition, that only the uptight bourgeoisie could be fooled.

It’s a bit clunky with this weird rom com aspect to it (really unnecessary and totally tacked on) and you may possibly get sick of the vibrator jokes and “feeling a bit stiff” but I didn’t and I have a pretty good radar for that sort of stuff. Rupert Evert is great as the friend who invents the machine pre modified and, so it seems, the first dirty phone calls.

I guess the real joke here is that this is all based on accurate history and that we human creatures, “believing in science”, were once led down the most ludicrous of paths.  That is so insane now, there is no need to take the rest of the story seriously. Just sit back and enjoy the buzz.

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