You probably didn’t see Hysteria, the movie directed by Tanya Wexler.No great loss, as it’s a very silly comedy. On the other hand, if you’re facing a blank weekend and a lonely evening, a silly comedy will do. Maybe we should say right now that Hysteria is about the invention of the massage-vibrator. Yes, that one, the one used primarily by women for sexual relief. As the movie begins it announces that it’s based on “true events. Really.” Yes. Well. Sort of.
Hugh Dancy plays handsome Mortimer Granville — an enlightened doctor of the late 1800s who believes that germs exist and that washing your hands is a good thing to do if you’re a surgeon. In fact, his advanced ideas cause him to lose his job. Fortunately, he finds work as an assistant to Dr. Dalrymple, an upscale physician who caters to women diagnosed as having hysteria, a Victorian female problem with a collections of symptoms: insomnia, fatigue, sexual frustration and general nervousness.
Dalrymple’s successful cure consists of a discrete massage (masturbation is the word we’d use today) of the patient under something like a fancy red shawl that conceals what’s going on down there. Dr. Dalrymple happens to have two daughters: passive & conventional Emily, who lives with her widowed father, plays Chopin and studies phrenology, and feisty Charlotte, dramatized by Maggie Gallenhaal, who has left home to work in an impoverished settlement house, educating children of the poor, taking care of the sick and injured, a bright energetic woman with advanced ideas about medicine and women’s rights and sex. OK, you’ve got the setup.
But handsome Mortimer abruptly loses his smarts and, encouraged by his mentor Dr. Dalrymple, begins to court passive & conventional Emily! Young Dr. Mortimer becomes quite skilled at the massage cure for hysteria, so skilled that his patient list grows and he develops carpel tunnel syndrome. As it happens, his very rich young friend, Edmund St. John-Smythe, an inventor, is at work on a hand-held electric fan. It doesn’t work so well as a fan— it vibrates! OK, you get where the movie is going with this.
Viewers can enjoy being aghast at the hypocrisy and willful ignorance of Victorian society (as portrayed in this cartoonish movie) and can anticipate with pleasure Dr. Mortimer’s last-minuet recognition that smart, cheerful Charlotte, who looks terrific in a strapless gown, and who believes in germs and the washing of hands, but doesn’t believe in hysteria, a woman who is vibrantly sexual and who will take a husband as an equal, yes, our Charlotte is the one he admires and loves —why, he’ll even go down on one knee in the snowy courtyard of the settlement house to propose to her! And she’ll accept.
There was a doctor Joseph Mortimer Granville who is credited with inventing the electric percussive massaging instrument, but he refused to use it to cure women suffering from “female hysteria,” an affliction which rose to prominence in Victorian times and was, indeed, treated as portrayed in this movie.