They say that until 1900, 1910, around in there, for most things that ailed you it was smarter never to call a doctor, never to get anywhere near a hospital. I’m not kidding; they were more likely to kill you than if you stayed home. Other than a few herbal remedies (and not by any means all of those) the standard treatments were either useless or actually guaranteed to make you worse. Bleeding! They were still doing that in the early 20th century. Leeches, the refusal to wash hands or change suppurating bandages … the list is long. As for hospitals, it’s easy enough to get sick in a hospital even today, and back then there were open cesspits. The invention of anesthesia actually made some things a lot worse, because without the patient screaming bloody murder and fighting you with every muscle in his or her body, “doctors” had a lot more time to get into your guts with their filthy hands and get up to even more mischief.
Those wacky Victorians are always good for a laugh. They knew their anatomy well enough, but often had no idea at all what something was for. Nowhere was that worse than with the female genitalia and reproductive system. (Hell, there are still things in dispute, what with the fabulous G-spot and female ejaculation.) Doctors maintained that 50% of the women in London were suffering from what they called “hysteria.” It was vaguely defined, but here, at last, they got something right … sort of. They found the symptoms were alleviated by regular “vulval massage.” What they were doing was jacking the women off, giving them something they had no word for: an orgasm.
This movie is completely predictable—if you see the first 15 minutes, I guarantee you that you can write the last 15—but I found it to be a lot of fun. A young doctor joins the practice of the most respected clit-diddler in London, learns to “relieve” the housewife clients … and finds that he’s working so hard with his hand that he has what we would call carpal-tunnel syndrome! This leads in comic fashion to the invention of the first electric vibrator. (This is based on fact, though I’m sure they took a lot of liberties. They did manage to make it small enough to hold in one hand, but what they don’t tell you is that to run it you needed a 40-pound wet-cell lead battery!) Soon he’s a rich man!
This is all in fun. Jonathan Pryce is good as the old doctor, and the supporting cast is great, but the best part is Maggie Gyllenhaal as an early suffragette and general rabble-rouser for the rights of women. I didn’t believe the courtroom scene late in the movie for a moment, though. No judge in England at the time would have been so lenient on her. Just ask Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, and the other women who were force-fed in prison. What she was facing was a hysterectomy, and it’s an iron-clad cinch she would have gotten one, because they thought the uterus was the root of the problem. What a bunch of idiots!
But you know, sometimes I wonder … we think we’re so damn smart. We think we exist at the pinnacle of human knowledge, that if we don’t know all the answers, we’re at least on the track of where they might lie. But I can tell you one thing for sure: A hundred years from now, people will be looking back at a lot of the things we were sure of, and thinking “What a bunch of idiots!”