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NERVOUS DEBILITY: A DISORDER MADE TO ORDER JUDnHKNELMAN University of Western Ontario Not all communicable diseases are documented in medical textbooks. One has to turn to mass communications for the epidemiology of a disease created in nineteenth-century England by quacks and transmitted via advertising. This article describes and locates the pathogenesis of "nervous debility" and as well attempts to infer the causality of this curious condition by analyzing it as a social construct In a culture that was not merely patriarchal but imperialist (and therefore preoccupied with control and power), young men perceived to be resisting marriage were urged on to "the glorious destiny of a husband" (La'Mert 150). It was accepted that women's horizons were limited by the confines of their bodies, but men were potentially heroic, masters of mind over matter. However, along with the ideology of selfcontrol , as Sally Shuttleworth has pointed out in another context, goes fear of the loss of control. "Emphasis on an individual's necessary responsibility for action is coupled with an overwhelming sense that control is at every moment liable to be overthrown" (317). Culturally as well as biologically, it was the responsibility of middleclass Victorian men to more than replace themselves with large broods of sturdy offspring. Further, they were expected to maintain their wives and children in a style that matched that of their neighbors. This may explain why in the last half of the century, despite the emergence of the bourgeois ideal of family life,1 the marriage rate declined steadily and the average age at the time of first marriage rose. Both men and women appeared to be balking at marriage. Respectable women, challenging their image as passive and submissive, were becoming increasingly assertive and independent. In a corresponding swing of the pendulum, Victorian men may have got less so. Anxiety about sexual performance appears to have discouraged a sizeable proportion of them from entering into relationships with women. By the 1880s novels were Victorian Review 22.1 (Summer 1996) JUDnHKNELMAN33 reflecting what Elaine Showalter has called "male dread of women's sexual, creative, and reproductive powers" (83). In other words, men as well as women were controlled by women's bodies. To judge by nineteenth-century newspaper advertising, men, indeed, were intimidated by them. There appears to have been an epidemic in England of nervous debility, used most often in quack advertisements as a euphemism for a neurotic fear of impotence. Particularly between 1840 and 1870, metropolitan and provincial newspapers were flooded with advertising for consultations, medicines and publications that addressed this problem. The heavy volume of advertising and howls of protest from the medical establishment (in medical journals) suggest that there was a great demand for these remedies. The approach and location of the advertising defined a certain type of male: young, often credulous, middle-class, socially responsible. Its abundance implied that nervous debility was not uncommon. Thus the press structured a particular representation of the disease in the minds of readers. The messages described a condition that was potentially destructive of domestic happiness but also potentially curable — for a fee. In the same way that behind the image of internal discipline lurked the fear of loss of control, behind the Victorian image of delicacy and propriety loomed a preoccupation with sex. Indeed, part of the attraction of discourse about sex, as Foucault and others have noted, is the uncovering of secrets (Weeks 19). Since the eighteenth century, societies have found a "wide dispersion of devices" in which to conduct the discourse (Foucault 34-5). In the nineteenth century, newspaper advertising created a discursive construct that got around prudishness and reticence with code words and formulaic rhetoric. One can imagine young men as disparate as Trollope's Lord Fawn and Phineas Finn, or Dickens's Bradley Headstone, or even Wilkie Collins's Franklin Blake (all products of the 1860s) earnestly scanning the newspapers for hints as to how to appear heroic to women. The encoding of the advertisements reflected unformulated fears that arose from and at the same time reinforced secrecy about sexual matters and drove men to repression and sublimation. Those who summoned up the courage and the cash to write for...


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pp. 32-41
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