- Hysteria Complicated by Ecstasy: The Case of Nanette Leroux
Nanette Leroux, an eighteen-year-old French peasant girl, fell gravely ill in the summer of 1822 with a bewildering array of nervous symptoms, including convulsions, mutism, lethargy, and much else, which initially caused observers to fear for her life. In altered states of consciousness, the young woman acted out scenes of harassment at the hands of a rural policeman, the precise nature of which was never specified. But none doubted her account that her malady had been triggered by "repeated frights caused her by an evil person" (p. 137).
In March of the following year, Nanette came under the care of Antoine Despine, a well-regarded physician in the spa town of Aix-les-Bains, a short distance [End Page 145] from the girl's home village. Despine kept detailed notes on his patient, whom he treated at intervals over the following two years with hot baths, cold showers, electromagnetism, and, more spectacularly, often for the benefit of spectators, with mesmerism or animal magnetism. Despine's case notes made their way to Alexandre Bertrand, a younger Paris-based physician with influential connections and publications who, although he never met the patient, collaborated to produce a coherent narrative. But both physicians' manuscripts lay forgotten until resurrected by Jan Goldstein.
Goldstein masterfully breathes life into Nanette's case history, which she likens to a novel exploring "the obscure recesses of the human heart" (p. 95). Her translation, roughly a quarter of the book, follows Bertrand's text and adopts his title but interweaves selections from Despine's notes. Preceding chapters situate the case in multiple contexts of spa medicine, Savoyard politics, economics and culture, women's history, and changing conceptions of hysteria and animal magnetism.
Two characters whose voices emerge from the physicians' accounts are Nanette herself and Joseph Mailland, a middle-aged agricultural worker who accompanies the patient throughout her illness. Nanette displays, in Goldstein's phrase, a "characteristic feistiness" (p. 15), cursing the offending policeman, prescribing her own remedies, specifying how her attacks can be terminated, objecting violently to intrusive outside observers, and even setting up her own version of the Scottish (ice cold) shower. Mailland, whom the patient amusingly calls "my little one," brings Nanette out of her initial crisis and remains her primary caregiver, enjoying success with soothing words and touches while taking notes in the physician's absence. Nanette's intimate rapport with the older man extends to somnambulistic scenes in which she sees him in the guise of a lover.
Goldstein interprets the case on two levels. As a twenty-first-century historian using psychoanalytic insights, she sees Nanette as a nubile intelligent young woman whose reaction to sexual trauma results in a nervous disorder providing respite from assuming traditional gender, marital, and reproductive roles. Her demand for an elegant watch piece, in addition to revealing that she aspires to fashionable consumerism above her station, represents "her wish to be the keeper of her own clock rather than [be governed by] biological time" (p. 117). Similarly, Nanette's conviction that she has brought about a definitive cure of her long illness with manipulations in her bath producing a "universal shiver" (p. 192) (plausibly read by Goldstein to be an orgasm) is seen as a desire for sexual autonomy.
Goldstein's other complementary interpretation invokes Michel Foucault in an effort to explain why Nanette's physicians, indeed Savoyard society, appeared oblivious to the sexual significance of the policeman's actions and their pathological consequences. According to Goldstein's lucid explication of "Foucauldian sexuality" (pp. 102-6), the conception of sexuality as a discursive object of scientific knowledge had not yet emerged in the 1820s, at least not for Nanette's physicians. Possibly not. But it remains problematic to argue from silence for a "nonrecognition of the sexual" (p. 99). Even much later in the century, a time, supposedly, of "full-fledged Foucauldian sexuality" (p. 105), Freud famously [End Page 146] remarked that physicians, including...