High Strikes

Victorian ladies who, one gets the impression, spent most of their lives in what is now known as ‘socialising’, rarely set foot in the kitchen except to have words with Cook, but were frequently found in hysterics, or high strikes as the condition was vulgarly known. When visitors came to call, a young woman had to know when to stay in the room or when to make herself scarce and while the writers on etiquette tried to be reassuring – ‘A young girl with all the freshness of youth and the sweet dignity of woman-hood has a sure passport into society which assures her a warmth of welcome’ (the proviso, as long as her papa has pots of money, was considered at once too obvious and too coarse to be stated) – it is no surprise that so many of them were reduced to lying on the floor drumming their heels and screaming. Hysteria, which was, according to The Dictionary Of Daily Wants, ‘more common in females than men’, was characterised by ‘low spirits, a feeling of depression and anxiety, sudden involuntary grief and tears, palpitation, sickness, a sense of suffocation and the apparent presence of a ball in the throat; theses symptoms are or are not attended with sobs and sudden fits of laughter, convulsive twitches and contractions of the hands and arms, finally terminating, after more or less muscular contractions, in insensibility and coma’. If the patient was young and robust, she was bled, but in general it was thought sufficient to throw cold water on her.

from Alice Thomas Ellis, Fish, Flesh And Good Red Herring : A Gallimaufry (2004)

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