Narrating the Hysteric: Fin-de-Siècle Medical Discourse and Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins (1893)

  • Ann Heilmann


A synonym for femininity in nineteenth-century medical textbooks, hysteria encodes female rebellion in contemporary feminist theory. This essay examines the way in which Sarah Grand’s novel The Heavenly Twins (1893) challenges Victorian medicine while also taking issue with the feminist conflation of hysteria and protest. Presenting Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s account of female madness through the eyes of the physician husband, Grand drew on contemporary medical discourse in order to undermine patriarchal authority by exposing its destructive impact on female identity. Her strategy of disrupting the doctor’s story with the voices of the female narrator and her heroine anticipated that other fin-de-siècle hysteric who exploded the narrative frame of her case study, Anna O. By ultimately relegating her character Evadne to the shadow land of the failed rebel, Grand suggested that, while hysteria dramatized the clash between patriarchal law and female experience, thus marking the transition from internalized conflict to externalized anger, its liberating potential was lost unless this externalization did in fact take place. To a writer then in the process of becoming an activist, it was commitment to organized political action, and not the earlier phase of hysterical self-absorption, that was the mark of the successful feminist.


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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2002

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  • Ann Heilmann

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