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Fainting in Victorian Novels and Victorian Life

Anne Kniggendorf

Oh! Are You Okay?

Fainting Bride
American Stereoscope Company. 1900

If 19th century literature is any guide, a lot of people had a hard time staying on their feet in the 1800s. As soon as a character, particularly, but not exclusively a woman, got just a little bit too warm or a little bit too emotional, down she went. If she was lucky, someone would be nearby to revive her with a smelling bottle or a splash of cool water.
Fainting and swooning are common events in Victorian literature. [I do not see any significant distinction between the terms “faint” and “swoon,” so I will use them interchangeably throughout this exhibit.] Characters seem to faint with the frequency that they drink a nice burgundy or claret—neither of which is beyond suspicion in my research—so fainting becomes an activity that is easy to take for granted and ignore in many of the novels from this era. But, why are characters given to fainting fits? I assume that the characters’ fainting is a reflection of fainting that was happening in real life during this time. Why was fainting so common? Did men faint too? Moreover, why would an author choose to have a character faint in one of her/his novels? Did fainting help with character development? Did fainting advance the plot?
I have a lot of questions about fainting because there seemed to be so much of it in the 19th century and so little of it now. I think I’ve only witnessed true faints by about three people and I personally have never fainted. I’m not thinking that fainting no longer exists, I know that it does, but the characters in Victorian novels hit the ground a lot more often than anyone does today. What gives?
"Mercy Was Fallen Down Without in a Swoon"
Henry Altemus' version of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress 1890, Frederick Barnard
It turns out a LOT gives. To name a few possible reasons for all the fainting: the women, and sometimes men, wore corsets, that is, they were “tight-lacers” and couldn’t breathe; there was either arsenic or lead in just about everything they came in contact with; they were often dressed too warmly in the summer and too cool in the winter; and it seems that it was fashionable for women to be delicate flowers—the men liked that. With all of this going on it’s hard to pinpoint a single cause of the fainting.  But, I absolutely think that women were fainting for physical reasons, not because it was cool, and fainting certainly developed novels' characters and advanced their plots.

Is this what I'm supposed to do?

There seem to be opposing schools of thought about fainting.  One says that fainting was something like a fad, contagious in the way habits of speech are within social spheres--or something that a woman does because that's what her favorite characters do.  The other school of thought says that there were real physical causes for the fainting.

In the March 2013 issue of the journal Body Image, Robert Magee and Melissa Kaminski published an article entitled “Does this book make me look fat? The effect of protagonist body weight and body esteem on female readers’ body esteem.” This article brings up an interesting point that is much farther reaching than the body images of women in the 21st century. The way women are represented to each other matters—whether the woman protagonist is struggling to keep her weight down or she’s swooning in the vicinity a potential lover. It turns out that 114 years ago a man named Stephen Gwynn was thinking along the same lines as Kaminski and Magee.
Woman Reading 1880s
Pal Vago (1853-1928)
In 1899 Gwynn published an article in Cornhill magazine called “The Decay of Sensibility.” 1899 was the tail-end of the Victorian Era so this guy had some perspective on what had been happening during the time period. He defined “sensibility” as the rapturous, exaggerated joy the characters felt, their “copious tears,” hysterics, and fainting fits. His idea in this article was that women were fainting because their favorite heroines did. He credits the Brontë sisters with putting a stop to all that nonsense. He wrote, “It was only when woman herself took up the pen and began basely to open men’s eyes to a sense of the ludicrous in this particular situation [fainting all the time] that all these tender susceptibilities shriveled like a maidenhair fern exposed to an east wind, and man began to revise his position” (Gwynn 30). So, he thought that as female writers gained power and popularity they also had the cunning to put a stop to womankind’s hysterical antics.
Kaminski and Magee’s research into the way chick lit heroines’ body images work to hurt the body images of female readers yielded a result that would support Gwynn’s idea about the fainting. “Protagonist weight influenced participants’ perceptions of their sexual attractiveness, but not their weight concern, while protagonist body esteem influenced participants’ weight concern, but not their perceived sexual attractiveness” (Kaminski and Magee). They arrived at these results by having their subjects read rewritten portions of two novels, Something Borrowed (Giffin, 2005) and Dreaming in Black and White (Walker, 2005), reworking the ways that the protagonists felt about their bodies and their sexual attractiveness. So, if I read a book with an extremely overweight or underweight protagonist I will start to feel like I’m sexually unattractive. Then I might read another book with a protagonist who is always whimpering about how she’s so fat and hates everything about her body, and the next thing I know I am obsessing over my own girth.
Girl Reading at the Beach and a Dog, June 3, 2010
El Coleccionista de Instante
In Victorian literature we get a lot of descriptions of the way characters behave with each other, but we don’t get a whole lot of information about a character’s body esteem. We know they want to look good. They want to have the latest fashions and buy a new hat from time to time, but we don’t get sentences like, “As I sat at table with Mother and I knew that though I had only eaten two bites of my biscuit there was no room beneath my corset for a third. My waist measures 14 inches today, thank the Lord. What a great dietary aid tight-lacing is.” All we get is that the protagonist is sitting around chatting with her friends one minute, someone says or does something a little too exciting, then the next thing you know she swoons theatrically. I think there were dozens of reasons a 19th century heroine might have fainted; there were reasons all around her and within her.

Fainting in The Law and the Lady

A scene from a 19th century murder trial
I’d like to look at The Law and the Lady by Wilkie Collins written in 1875. This book has far fewer fainting episodes in it than some, and has the advantage of equal parts male and femal fainting, so it’s a good one to work with.
What was happening in The Law and the Lady? Here’s the gist: the heroine, Valeria, marries a man named Eustace…a guy almost everyone has a bad feeling about and no one seems to want her to marry. She loves him so much that she just can’t turn away. It turns out she probably should have run from him, fast.

Valeria learns that Eustace has been tried for the murder of his first wife. Murder by poisoning. But Valeria can’t quit Eustace so, even though he’s fled from her out of shame and says she would be better off without him, she sets out to find the Truth (with a capital T) about his first wife’s death.
Lady with a Mirror
As the novel unfolds we learn, along with Valeria, that the longing for external beauty and personal validation is the real killer, not Eustace. Valeria finds both a copy of The Trial (a bound copy of Eustace’s trial for murder) AND a photograph of Eustace with his first wife, Sara, who was very unattractive. Valeria’s quest ends when she learns that Sara left a suicide note--all she has to do is find it!
It takes an awful lot of time and man-power to do it, but eventually the letter is retrieved from a rubbish heap and glued back together, to reveal that Sara intentionally overdosed on arsenic (a popular cure for ugly complexions) because Eustace didn’t love her or feel attracted to her.
The book wraps up, Eustace didn’t really kill his wife, he and Valeria have a baby, all is more or less well.
The one time in the novel when Valeria faints we have to figure it’s a significant plot point. Valeria is at Major Fitz-David's house searching for clues to solve mystery of her husband's odd behavior.  After a while she is joined by the major's young love interest, Miss Hoighty.  Miss Hoighty mentions that she recently threw a book across the room and broke a vase she didn’t like. She retrieves the book for Valeria in case it might help. Sure enough, it’s The Trial. The title page reads:
"The Poor Girl Sank Down Lifeless on the Floor"
W.T. Smedley 1885
                        A COMPLETE REPORT OF
                                   THE TRIAL OF
                            EUSTACE MACALLAN
                   FOR THE ALLEGED POISONING
                                      HIS WIFE.
Valeria reads the first part, looks up at Miss Hoighty, Miss Hoighty starts back from Valeria in terror and screams. “There, God’s mercy remembered me. There, the black blank of a swoon swallowed me up” (88). The swoon is the end of a chapter. The next chapter begins with Valeria recovering from the swoon and is called “The Return to Life.”
Valeria is described as a baby as she works to regain consciousness. She’s awake but in agony and cannot speak. Slowly she feels relief and her hands move mechanically like a baby’s. At this point she’s able to open her eyes and look around, “as if I had passed through the ordeal of death, and had awakened to new senses, in a new world” (89). She’s been reborn from death. She’s also in her new reality—in a world where her own husband is possibly a murderer and everyone knew it but her.

Would you have fainted?

Why faint, though? Would you have fainted? I would have been astonished and may have decided to sit down, but I can’t imagine I would have fainted. Douglas Thorpe, associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan wrote that a swoon provides “narrative suspension” and an “opportunity to scrutinize the signs” (Thorpe 108). In this instance the swoon certainly does both things.
Valeria’s faint is an exclamation mark and double underscore of what we and Valeria learn about Eustace. Her life has changed, the secret we have been wondering about for 88 pages is revealed, yet there are 295 more pages to go. Without the faint to drive home the excitement—if she had just yelled, “What!? That asshole! I should have known!”—I might have put the book down then and there, not caring if Valeria ever cleared him of the murder charges. The knowledge of his crime almost literally kills her, though, and she reawakens, a babe in a new reality.
Valeria’s faint also opens up the other characters. Those who will help her, Major Fitz David and her old friend Benjamin, are by her side. How does her husband react? While she’s unconscious he figures out that she knows the truth about him that he’s worked so hard to keep from her. She feebly cries out to him when she sees him, holds out her hand for him, but he doesn’t look at her. He leaves the room. She can’t believe it and neither can we, the readers. She isn’t upset with him (as we are), though, she wants to throw herself into his arms. What’s his problem?
Emery Rondahl "The Doctor's Orders"
There’s a doctor in the room, which surprises her, and she thinks, “I began dimly to understand that my fainting-fit must have presented symptoms far more serious than the fainting-fits of women in general” (90). What could have been special about her fainting-fit? Miss Hoighty is in the room still, the one who gave Valeria the book, and she’s been crying and thinks that everyone blames her for the swoon. Miss Hoighty is angry that the major blames her and describes herself as a “new-born babe.” Now both women are babies. Miss Hoighty gives her only speech and it’s about her self-respect. She stands up for herself, refuses to take the blame, says she is not the fainting type, and that she comes from respectable parents. She says twice that her name is Hoighty and that she’s respectable and without blame. She’s “a poor girl with nobody else to speak up for her” (91). She wants Valeria to take responsibility for the faint.  The only reason we learn anything about this character is because Valeria faints.
Valeria does accept responsibility and attempts to defend Miss Hoighty. Then the major takes the responsibility of consoling Miss Hoighty. Look at everyone stepping up to be the responsible party. Up to this point it seemed that the major probably liked weak women; he collects them as it seems only weak women can be collected. Only pages before this he has his trusty smelling bottle at the ready in case Valeria fainted--he's always ready for a weak woman.  At the end of the novel the major marries Miss Hoighty, the other strong female character—he doesn’t like the weak ones after all and we wouldn’t have understood his preference without this scene; Miss Hoighty's character is developed when Valeria faints and the major's character is developed when Miss Hoighty's is developed.

Valeria was not putting on a show.

The appearance of the doctor combined with Valeria’s comment that something must have been different about her fainting-fit than those of other women, tells us that this faint is meant to be the real deal, not an act for the men. Thorpe wrote, “Indeed, it seems clear that the swoon does not simply register character, but helps reveal the twin male courses of patronization and victimization, and the twin female recourses of submission and deception” (108). I would agree that after the faint we do see that Eustace intends to play the victim, but no one seems to be patronizing her. Also, she is immediately looking to accept responsibility for her own swoon; she’s not in submissive posture and she hasn’t set out to deceive anyone. Thorpe’s suggestion tells us that in general we might expect a 19th century character’s swoon to be a show with a purpose, but here, though it did have a purpose, it was not for show.
Stephen Gwynn assumes that all instances of literary fainting are for show. “In short, we are to understand that whereas a person of sham sensibility only went into minor swoons and hysterics, the person of true refinement was capable at the right moment of a dead faint” (26). There’s a contemporary writer who agrees with him. Edward Shorter suggests in his book From Paralysis to Fatigue: A History of Psychosomatic Illness in the Modern Era that women had a lot of behavioral and emotional constraints and hysterics and fainting was an outlet for them. He tells us that by 1920 no one was fainting for emotional reasons. So, Gwynn and Shorter neither one buy the fainting thing at all, seemingly under any circumstances.
Before we look at any more literary references to fainting, I would like to reemphasize that I’m not on board with Gwynn’s or Shorter’s idea that it’s all for show. The fainting in Victorian novels was not only because women were supposed to be dainty and frail or only because their favorite protagonists were fainting. I think that art was imitating life, not the other way around. Victorian women were actually very frail physically—the men weren’t much better off.
Victorians were frail and sickly and did a lot of fainting and vomiting and had a lot of seizures—they really did. What was wrong with them? Let’s start off with corsets and waist-bands.

It doesn't hurt if you don't know any different.

"If the baby happens to be of the feminine gender, it is especially unfortunate…
It must have a small waist, whether made so or not, and its baby-clothes
must be pinned as to favor this conformation of figure. So, too, when
the infant has grown to girlhood, her dresses must be made fashionably,
and her body, by means of lacing, and other inventions, crowded into
them, and she becomes so gradually accustomed to tight-fitting garments
about the waist, that when she arrives at womanhood, nobody can make her
believe she dresses too tightly” (Foote 113).
Tight-laced Victorian baby
James & Co. Summer Street 1860
Good Sense Corset Waist
When I first learned about the Chinese practice of binding a child’s feet so that a girl would have tiny, elegant feet into adulthood I couldn’t believe anyone would do that to a child. I had no idea that a culture closer to us was doing something far worse to its girls. Victorian girls and women couldn’t breathe. They’re hearts couldn’t pump the way hearts are supposed to. They couldn’t even digest their food properly.
In an article by B.O. Flower, the editor of an American magazine called Arena, a woman named Mary A. Livermore contributed the following in 1891:
“…invalidism of young girls is usually attributed to every cause but the
right one…All the while the physician is silent concerning the glove-fitting,
steel-clasped corset, the heavy, dragging skirts, the bands engirding the
body, the pinching, deforming boot, and the ruinous social dissipation of
fashionable society. These will account for much of the feebleness of
young women and girls. For they exhaust nervous force, make freedom
of movement a painful impossibility, and frequently shipwreck the young
girl before she is out of port” (403).
Perfect Health Corset
Hapster Magazine 1883

Surely someone realized this was not a good idea.

It looks like there were always naysayers publishing articles trying to tell people that tight-lacing was just an awful thing to do, but the women weren’t willing to listen. Flower wrote that a change in fashion would need to be introduced gradually because “the unusual in dress is usually denounced as immoral because we are all prone to allow our prejudice to obscure our reason and o’ersway our judgment” (Flower 421).
In an article entitled “Corsets and Corpulance” from the magazine London Society, the writer pointed out that there are references to “wasp-waisted” women in Homer’s writing. He said there is evidence that tight-lacing was practiced in France in the year 1043 and there were men who tight-laced in the 16th century. The London Review has an article in 1868 called “Tight-Lacing” that explained physicians have been arguing against the practice of tight-lacing for at least 35 years already—since 1833. An article in Sharpe's Magazine explains: “The natural respiration is thus interfered with, and the lungs and heart suffer from compression, while a disposition to bronchial, consumptive, and inflammatory diseases frequently ensues” (47). So, all this is to say to you: these women (and often the men) were not running at full capacity and everybody knew tight-lacing was a terrible idea.
Diagram of organs' positions after a woman has been corseted for years

There were a lot of factors that contributed to general sickliness.

But wait, there are other fairly unbelievable circumstances that contributed to the fainting and hysteria. By the end of the 19th century about 80% of all wallpaper contained arsenic (Bryson 371). Arsenic was also a component in fabrics, confections, sometimes the paper confections were wrapped in, pigments, and paints. Symptoms of inhaling arsenic include: cold symptoms and cough, dryness and irritation of throat, frequent headaches, extreme restlessness, great debility accompanied by cold sweats, leg cramps, “griping and dysentery,” convulsive twitching, nervous symptoms that vary by case, and fever. In an 1880 article in the Journal of the Society of Arts, Rev. R.J. Simpson testified about a woman he knew who was very sick all the time. “The debility was great, and fainting fits of almost daily occurrence” (Carr 151). Her family moved her to another room in the house (one that did not have arsenic in the wallpaper) and within six weeks she had completely regained her health. In the same article Mr. Charles Ekin, an analytical chemist in Bath, reports a case of artificial flowers arriving at a home. One daughter in the home was “seized with a violent shivering fit and faintness. She was taken out of the room, and, after a time, recovered.” The women experimented with the flowers and each time they all felt ill around them. They packed the flowers off to him for analysis and he found that the leaves of the fake flowers contained arsenic (it was especially popular for dying things green). Arsenic was also used to starch collars, stiffen tulle and veils, and as an antiseptic. They could not escape arsenic fumes.
Before we go back to The Law and the Lady I’ll briefly mention that arsenic, mercury, lead, bismuth, copper, and belladonna were common ingredients in the cosmetics of the time. We know today that we don’t want much or any of these metals (or plant, in the case of the belladonna) in our systems. We don’t know why, we just know lead=bad, arsenic=bad. The Victorians more or less knew these things would hurt them, too; they used arsenic to kill rats. But, they also thought that arsenic would improve their complexions, make them appear youthful, and even give them extra strength. Arsenic eating was popular with men for building strength and women for improving their complexions, and popular with both for making them appear youthful. They were enough aware that they shouldn’t be ingesting it that they did it secretly. ALL of these metals debilitated those who used them in one way or another. Many of the metals hurt the user’s nervous system and caused seizures or “fainting fits.”
The Family Doctor and People's Medical Advisor
December 21, 1889
Back to Wilkie Collins… Collins doesn’t come out and tell us that Valeria was wearing a corset, but she was an upper middle-class woman in 1875, so it’s safe for us to assume she was wearing one. The day she went to visit Major Fitz-David she got all made up. She knew she’d have to look her best to get the major’s attention and she asked a maid to apply make-up to her face and fix her hair. “Look at your complexion, ma’am. You will frighten him if he sees you like that. A touch of colour you must have. Where do you keep it? What! you haven’t got it? you never use it? Dear, dear, dear me!” (55). Even if Valeria had traveled with “paints” she never would have admitted to it. “She came back with a box of paints and powders; and I said nothing to check her. I saw, in the glass, my skin take a false fairness, my cheeks a false colour, my eyes a false brightness—and I never shrank from it. No!” (55). Valeria was at least covered in pearl powder (white lead or trisnitrate of bismuth) and rouge--“cinnabar (a compound of sulphur and mercury)” ("On Cosmetics" 467). Her eyes shone with a “false brightness” so it’s completely possible that the chambermaid gave her a dose of belladonna or opium. Belladonna enlarges the pupils and opium brightens the eyes ("Effects of Opium" 342).
Between her make-up and her corset Valeria went into the situation at the major’s house in bad shape. Add to this the likely presence of arsenic fumes in the room (from the wallpaper and furniture) she spent hours snooping through for clues, and I think we have multiple reasons she fainted in a fashion that alarmed the major and Miss Hoighty. On the up side, she looked great.

Should Sara have done something differently?

In The Law and the Lady there’s one other female character described as feeling faint, though we only hear about her, we don’t see what happened exactly. This other woman is Eustace’s first wife, Sara, the one who died. Christina Ormsay, Sara’s nurse, tells the court that Sara Macallan “complained of faintness and depression, and said she felt sick” (126). Christina reports that Eustace was alarmed at his wife’s feeling of faintness. We eventually learn that Sara has O.D.ed on arsenic, but before we learn that we only know that she’s mysteriously ill and has probably been intentionally poisoned by someone in the household.
We learn from Sara’s suicide note that she was ashamed of her ugliness and was distraught at Eustace’s lack of attention to her and simultaneous flirtation with Mrs. Beauly (an old lover who was staying in their house at the time of Sara’s death). Sara had begun using the arsenic to fix her “muddy” complexion, but decided it wasn’t working and she should go ahead and kill herself to rid the world of her ugliness.
Aviva Briefel, in her article “Cosmetic Tragedies: Failed Masquerade in Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady” explained that it was a woman’s moral duty to society to mask her ugliness the way she would “lameness or leanness” because it was an unpardonable offense to “inflict your misfortunes [ugliness] on everybody” (465). Women, and men too, wanted so much to be beautiful and uphold their moral obligation of beauty to society but they felt that using artificial means of beautification was morally reprehensible and seen by society as really dangerous. They were so conflicted about what course they should take that they would hide their use of, say, arsenic, from absolutely everyone, including their doctors (even after the arsenic began to make them ill).
The catch about Sara, though, is that she didn’t do all she might have to make herself more beautiful, thereby breaking her contract with men and society. Briefel wrote: “Her [Sara’s] refusal [to paint] is not a laudable gesture, but a rejection of her duty to be beautiful and a direct affront against the heterosexual contracts of the novel” (476). Eustace remarked to himself, “I wonder what it is that makes her so distasteful to me. She is a plain woman; but I have seen uglier women than she, whose caresses I could have endured, without the sense of shrinking that comes over me when I am obliged to submit to her caresses” (154). She’s so distasteful because she doesn’t perform her “duty”—that is, she doesn’t mask his shortcomings. If she could have made herself more attractive by “painting,” the ugliness in his character wouldn’t have manifested itself as revulsion at her appearance. That’s pretty twisted but when you think about it for a minute it makes a creepy sort of sense. He wouldn’t have been such a jerk to her if she’d just tried a little harder to make herself look better. That’s pretty awful, but it’s pretty true. Our modern-day equivalent is a couple with one morbidly obese partner who just won’t do his or her part to get in better shape—the one who is trying to be health-conscious and image-conscious eventually ends up resenting the one who isn’t trying—whose fault is that disharmony?
A woman enhancing her beauty
Eva Gonzales 1875
Thank goodness Valeria comes along and is beautiful and willing to paint her face and exaggerate that natural beauty (though she doesn’t want to have to paint all the time)! If Valeria had not done herself up to see the major, her first step in solving the mystery, she would have essentially failed Eustace the same as Sara did. By working to reverse the Scotch Verdict (that’s what the jury’s finding of “not sure if he’s guilty or innocent” was called), Valeria is working to mask Eustace’s flaws as well as fortify her own position in society as a wife (Briefel 470).
So, of course Sara feels faint and probably actually does faint—she’s poisoned herself. Fainting in this case is not a literary device, but part of the meat of the story. We learn about Sara’s character (that she would poison herself to look a little better), we learn about Sara and Eustace’s relationship (they’re struggling because he’s not attracted to her), and we learn about Eustace (he has genuine goodwill toward her but is sort of grossed out by her at the same time).

Are the men much better off?

Spirella 1912
Men want to look good too.
Because there are so many environmental factors that go into someone’s health, Victoran men were just as susceptible to fainting-fits as the women. Somehow we never think of the men fainting. And they did tight-lace. In 1848 Thackeray wrote about one of his characters in Vanity Fair, that he “tried, in order to give himself a waist, every girth, stay and waistband then invented” (Burdett 124). A 1929 article in the Saturday Review informs us that in the Elizabethan Age men were “evidently corseted.” “Their waists were wasp-waists; their hips were emphasized; the thorax was plainly padded to swell the curve of their chests” (124).
At the beginning of The Law and the Lady Valeria tells Eustace that she has figured out he lied about his last name and she knows what his real name is. “He started back at the sound of his own name as if I had struck him—he started back, and turned so deadly pale that I feared he was going to drop at my feet in a swoon. Oh, my tongue! my tongue! Why had I not controlled my miserable, mischievous woman’s tongue!” (51). It seemed perfectly possible to Valeria that her husband might swoon under a shock, just as we often see Victorian women swooning for emotional reasons. Does Collins want us to read Eustace as weak because he seems faint under this strain? We learn here that Valeria is bold and unafraid of Eustace. She is willing to speak frankly with her husband, even in an accusatory way, which not every female Victorian character would do. We also see here that he really is ashamed and aware of the associations that go with his name since the trial. He’s tried to start fresh with a new name because he no longer wants to associate himself with the name or the trial any more than anyone else does.
The London Reader has a short article from 1886 about how fainting feels and what is to be done when someone faints. The article is entirely assuming that it’s a man who’s doing the fainting. There is nothing in the article about why someone would faint, which leads me to believe fainting was just to be expected. “In cases where the person simply feels faint without fainting away, he should lie down, if possible, with the head on the level with the body…in some cases, simply bowing the head down into the lap will strengthen the cerebral circulation sufficient to avert fainting” (297).
The other fainting male character in The Law and the Lady is Miserrimus Dexter, the man confined to a wheelchair mentioned earlier. I mention him not only because he’s a fainter, but because he couldn’t possibly be tight-lacing since he’s missing the lower half of his body. As we’re reading we really don’t know what Dexter has to do with Sara or her poisoning, we only know he was Eustace’s friend and was staying in their house at the time of her death. Valeria tells Dexter that she thinks someone else in the house poisoned Sara (before she knows it was suicide). Dexter startled and began to rise in his chair, “and sank back again, seized apparently with a sudden faintness” (232). In this instance, his fainting reaction makes him seem suspicious. When Valeria goes over the event with her attorney, Mr. Playmore, he says, “What is the horror that has gotten possession of him? It is easy to understand if we call it guilty horror” (260). Mr. Playmore explains that he thinks Dexter may have played a part in her death and goes on to say, “I see no other conclusion possible, after what happened during your visit to him. You all but frightened him into a fainting fit. What was he afraid of?” (261).
Since Dexter’s physique made it impossible for him to wear a men’s corset we can’t blame tight-lacing for his faint. But we do know that Dexter got into the beauty products and was really quite lovely. “His long silky hair, of a bright and beautiful chestnut colour, fell over shoulders that were the perfection of strength and grace….He would have looked effeminate, but for the manly proportions of his throat and chest; aided in their effect by his flowing beard and long moustache, of a lighter chestnut shade than his hair” (163). His cousin Ariel routinely tended to his appearance: “She combed, she brushed, she oiled, she perfumed the flowing locks and the silky long beard of Miserrimus Dexter…” (196).
Dandy's Toilette 1818
The Corset, a Cultural History
Did Dexter dye his hair? There was a straw-colored pomade that was popular at the time—is that what made his hair and mustache a light chestnut color? An 1868 article in Belgravia voices the following concerns:“I fear, however, that in many instances the peculiar tint of yellow so much desiderated is given by incorporation with some injurious metallic compound” (Scoffern 236). The writer goes onto say that lead and bismuth were popular ingredients in hair dye.
A little further on in the novel we have this description of Dexter: “His jacket, on this occasion, was of pink quilted silk. The coverlid which hid his deformity matched the jacket in pale sea-green satin…” (216). The brighter and more beautiful the fabric, the more likely it was to contain an element like arsenic. “Chronic poisoning by arsenic in domestic fabrics is without a doubt an important subject, affecting the public to such an extent as to render attention to the question essential…A very general effect is the lowered condition of the system, such as to render the individual more susceptible to the attacks of other diseases” (Chambers 799). Poor Dexter. Did his love of beautiful fabrics do him in?
Valeria speaks to Dexter one final time, the day she pulls the final clue about the letter from him. “In a little while his hand dropped; his head sank forward gently, and rested on the frame of the harp. I started to my feet, and approached him. Was it a sleep? or was it a swoon?” (311-312). We don’t learn which one it was. Dexter wakes up and begins drinking burgundy—it’s described as very strong—he dies 10 pages later.

Even the wine was dangerous.

Does Dexter’s wine contain lead or other metals? In a letter to the editor of The Literary Journal M. Dicus, a physician, writes that he noticed his upper-class patients complained much more about seizure activity than his poorer patients. He tested their wine and found quite a bit of lead. “You, of course, are aware that this deleterious metal produces Epilepsy in an intense degree” (281). He tells the editor that he has a formula for detecting lead, arsenic, and copper in wine. Forty-six years later in another article, there’s a discussion of the poisons people are regularly exposed to, including their wines (ports in particular): “Indeed, the greatest peril of all lies in the liquids. What vast foundations of disease and death may be laid on port at a pound a dozen—the dozen being filled with artistic preparations of cider, brandy, aloe-juice, elder wine and orris-root. If this pleasant beverage be “muddy,” the manufacturer clears it by adding lead” ("Essays, Historical" 107).
"Bottle, Glass, and Lemons"
Paul Cezanne, 1867-1869

They rode to freedom on bicycles.

By the end of Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901) it looked as though “bicycle fever” would save mankind from self-destruction. The bicycle had been around for at least 30 years before the general population latched onto it as a form of exercise, transportation, and entertainment. The end of the 19th century saw the invention of the “tricycle and of the low equal-wheeled ‘Safety,’ and ... of the pneumatic tyre…and has brought an exercise both fascinating and exhilarating within reach of all, old and young, man, woman, and child” (Turner 640).
The New Woman
The bicycle craze meant a change in fashion—a new fashion that was dictated by function rather than form. “All underclothing should be of wool, with a thickness regulated according to the temperature; shoes always; boots never should be worn; and no garment should be at all tight” (Turner 646). Women were also given leave to wear “bloomers,” which were in the vein of very wide capris cinched in at the knee. “Women are riding to freedom on a bicycle” (Foote 119).
And if people were out on their bikes they were not in their houses, surrounded by gaseous poisons. In 1899 when everyone who’s anyone was out on a bike, it’s no wonder that Stephen Gwynn of Cornhill thought it was so laughable that women used to faint regularly; the culture had moved past a lot of the dangers that were causing the fainting. He wrote that there’s a New Woman present in literature and in the real world “when the heroine does not shriek and swoon, but swears a little and calls for whiskey and soda to pull herself together. This type of heroine we have not quite reached yet…” (28).
1897 advertisement in The Graphic for Elliman's Universal Embrocation
Appropriate Biking Attire