Nervous mimicry: performing paralysis in nineteenth-century culture

The nineteenth century marked the emergence of neurology as a specialist clinical discipline, with research and practice identifying a range of neurodegenerative conditions with distinct nosological categories, and new therapies to deal with them. The nervous system was also however recognised to be particularly susceptible to influence by the mind and emotions, with the mid-nineteenth century neurologist Charles Handfield Jones stressing that as ‘all the passions and emotion … perceptions and recollections’ operate through it, ‘is it any wonder that exhaustion should frequently befall this delicate and complex machinery’ (1864)? In this paper, I will assess the ways in which forms of paralysis were variously categorised as organic or functional diseases from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, and consider how functional paralysis – or ‘nervous mimicry’, as it was described by the physician James Paget – became a condition of increasing medical and cultural attention from the 1850s onwards, signalling particular anxieties concerning the relationship between mental, moral, and bodily health and capacity.

Notably, neurological debate touched on the extent to which patients (both male and female) might be ‘shamming’ or performing their conditions, replicating wider social and cultural debates in which the paralysed body was a contradictory object of both moral sympathy and suspicion. I will explore how paralysis was associated by an anxious questioning concerning both the authenticity and productivity of embodied identity in a range of nineteenth-century cultural texts. In the fourth volume of London Labour and the London Poor (1861-2), Henry Mayhew and his journalist colleagues are troubled by the status of crippled beggars, worried about those who might be ‘imposters’ whilst also recognising the need for people to perform their disabilities to elicit alms. In his novel Little Dorrit (1855-57), Dickens reinforced the practice of imagining and representing paralysed bodies within an inherently suspicious framework, as motor impairment was indexically linked to moral corruption in the depiction of Mrs Clennam. The poet Eugene Lee-Hamilton also described paralysis as loss in his collection Sonnets of the Wingless Hours (1894), in which he lamented how ‘my manhood goes where goes the song /Of pent-up bird, the cry of crippled things’. However, the development of Lee-Hamilton’s own writing career during a prolonged period of illness – understood to be psychological in origin – points also to the generative and productive possibilities of paralysis.