By Sally Campbell
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Directed by Tanya Wexler, out now
Issue 373

Angela Carter once wrote an essay called “Alison’s Giggle”, which was about the changing representations of women’s sexuality in literature. Alison was the carpenter’s wife in Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale, written at the end of the 14th century. She finds her husband repulsive and has taken another lover. She humiliates the older and rather ridiculous carpenter by tricking him into kissing her arse. “Tee hee, said she”, Chaucer writes, showing Alison’s glee as she returns to her lover.

But this giggle of a woman’s simple satisfaction at sexually pleasing herself was rarely to be heard again in literature. And, Carter argues, just at the time when women became the authors and narrators of their own stories, from around 1800, sex had become a thing which was not to be talked about by or in front of women.

Two hundred years on we are clearly still struggling with the question of women’s sexuality – exemplified by a year which has seen a series of best selling but badly written, cliché-ridden “soft porn” novels about a virgin falling for an older, rich, devastatingly handsome man – most notably E L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. Today’s “giggle” is one of embarrassment, blushing and fear – particularly at the idea of a woman pleasing herself.

Which brings me to the film Hysteria – a fictionalised account of the invention of the vibrator. The vibrator was invented by Joseph Mortimer Granville, a London doctor, in the 1880s. It was first promoted as an aid for the relief of muscular pains, but quickly taken up by doctors for the treatment of “hysteria”. This vague term was applied to all kinds of symptoms reported by women – or diagnosed by men – in the 19th century, including unhappiness, restlessness, anxiety and irritability. The treatment was “abdominal massage” to the point of “hysterical paroxysm”. Doctors massaged women to orgasm – yet this was considered a purely physiological, and non-sexual, treatment.

The film takes a very light approach to the subject, with waiting rooms full of sexually frustrated, middle aged, middle class women queuing up to be treated by the dashing young Doctor Granville. This gives the impression that “hysteria” is simply about sexual frustration in a repressed Victorian society, rather than encompassing, among other things, what we would now call depression. It also encourages us to giggle at the concept of the “treatment”.

The character of Charlotte, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is an attempt to take issues up more seriously. She is a middle class reformer who has founded a “settlement house” in the East End providing social services and education to the poor. She denounces the diagnosis of hysteria as a catch-all for women’s real dissatisfaction with their restricted lives – her response is to fight for the vote and for education and healthcare for all. She also punches a copper in the face. You have to love her.

Hysteria is a likeable costume comedy, though it feels more like well-made Sunday evening TV than cinema. But the fact that even something as mild as this took years to find funding from the money men at the top of the film companies, and that a film that should be a profound tale of women’s oppression and potential for liberation is as mild as this, shows how much there still is to fight for.

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