Seminar 3: Fears, phobias and obsessions in the late-nineteenth century

Fears, phobias and obsessions in the late-nineteenth century

The third HSMT seminar of Hilary Term will take place at 16.00 on Monday 30th January (Week 3) in the Lecture Theatre of the History Faculty on George Street, and will be delivered by Sally Shuttleworth.

Sally Shuttleworthn moved to Oxford in 2006 to take up the post of the Head of the Humanities Division, with responsibility for the 11 faculties and units which make up the Division of Humanities within the University. She stepped down from this role in 2011 to return to research and is currently running two large research projects to extend her work on the interface of literature, science and culture: ‘Diseases of Modern Life: Nineteenth-Century Perspectives’ and ‘Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st Centuries’. She also teaches Victorian literature and culture.

Carl Friedrich Otto Westphal’s now-classic paper on ‘Agoraphobia’ of 1871 laid the foundations for the rapid development of work on phobias, fears and obsessions which sprang up in the last decades of the nineteenth century. This preoccupation with excessive states of fear, out of all proportion to any evident causes, climaxed in G. Stanley Hall’s ‘Synthetic Genetic Study of Fear’ in the American Journal of Psychology (1914), which registered no less than 138 different types of pathological fear, all with their own Greek or Latinate names, from more generalised categories such as agoraphobia, to the very specific pteronophobia (fear of feathers). In this talk, Shuttleworth will explore the intersection of medical and literary discourses of fear as they emerged in the latter half of the century, looking particularly at the ways in which psychiatry turned to literature for case studies of phobia and obsession.

G. Stanley Hall’s ‘Synthetic Genetic Study of Fear’, mentioned above, is available though SOLO in the American Journal of Psychology, Volume 25, No.3 (July 1914). The article can be accessed via this link if you’re already logged in to SOLO.








Several of Shuttleworth’s published works are also available online through SOLO. The mind of the child: child development in literature, science, and medicine 1840-1900 explores issues such as childhood fears, imaginary lands, sexuality, and the relation of the child to animal life, moving between literature and science. Chapter 2 of part 1 is entitled ‘Fears, Phantasms, and Night Terrors’, which is of particular relevance to the seminar. Shuttleworth is also a co-author of Crossing boundaries: thinking through literature, along with Julie Scanlon, Amy Waste, and Terry Eagleton. Shuttleworth’s chapter is ”So Childish and So Dreadfully Un-Childlike’: Cultural Constructions of Idiocy in the Mid-Nineteenth Century’, but its following chapter may also be relevant to the topic of fears: ”Aberrant Passions and Unaccountable Antipathies’: Nervous Women, Nineteenth-Century Neurology and Literary Text’, by Jane Wood.







The book from which Shuttleworth’s research project takes its name, Diseases of modern life by Benjamin Ward Richardson (QZ 40/Rich), is an interesting primary source text that we hold in the Unit Library, with some illuminating discussion of ‘Disease from Worry and Mental Strain’ (Part the Second, Chapter II). It covers such afflictions from mental strain as Hysteria and Broken Heart. This work approaches the effects of worry on health with the focus of the interview; a completely different angle on the topic of fear can be found in Philip Alcabes’s book Dread : how fear and fantasy have fueled epidemics from the Black Death to avian flu by (RA649 ALC 2009). This work looks at how anxieties about outbreaks of disease often stray from the facts to incorporate inflated fears about what is unknown, undesirable or misunderstood.








Allan Horwitz’s Anxiety : a short history (RC531 HOR 2013 and online) is a more general work on the topic, covering melancholia, nerves, neuroses and phobias, but has a pertinent chapter entitled ‘The Nineteenth Century’s New Uncertainties’. This explores how the newly industrialized world created a wide range of uncertainties, including a discussion of phobias. Finally, The age of anxiety : a history of America’s turbulent affair with tranquilizers by Andrea Tone (RM333 TON 2009) looks at medication and anxieties, and takes a brief look at the roots of modern anxiety in Victorian neurasthenia (‘tired nerves’) in its first chapter.








You can read more about Shuttleworth’s research into The Stresses and Strains of Modern Life here:

Please come and ask library staff if you would like any help with locating resources, or conducting further research. We also welcome further suggestions for reading not included in this post!

Header image: ‘A woman diagnosed as suffering from melancholia with fear, or fear of everything, and with a propensity to attempt suicide’
L0026691 Credit: Wellcome Library, London
A woman diagnosed as suffering from melancholia with fear, or fear of everything, and with a propensity to attempt suicide. Lithograph, 1892, after a drawing made for Sir Alexander Morison.
1892 after: Alexander Morison and Byrom Bramwell
Published: [s.n.],[Edinburgh] : [1892]; Printed: McLagan & Cumming Lith.)(Edin[bu]r[gh] :
Size: image 20.5 x 20 cm. ; Collection: Iconographic Collections
Library reference no.: ICV No 51428 and Iconographic Collection 38637i
Full Bibliographic Record: Link to Wellcome Library Catalogue

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0