I have a fainting disorder. Doesn’t that sound Victorian and elegant? It isn’t.
“Run mad as often as you choose, but do not faint!” — That’s Jane Austen, from Love and Friendship. As usual, Miss Austen knows what she’s talking about.
Swooning–fainting–was not in vogue during the Regency, at least not the way it was during Victoria’s era, when the swoon was so much a part of society life that there were fainting couches and fainting rooms:
“We must have two dressing-rooms in the third story, one for the gentlemen, one for the ladies–and a little fainting-room besides; the small east room will do for that–we can put in it the easy-chair, with the white batiste cover I brought over from the city, with a pitcher of iced-water, and restoratives, all ready. It is always best, Mrs. Bibbs, to have a pretty little fainting-room prepared beforehand–it makes the thing more complete.” — Susan Fenimore Cooper, Elinor Wyllys
Isn’t that lovely?
Fainting, aka syncope, is a brief loss of consciousness and “postural tone.” In other words: you pass out and fall over. It’s caused by a sudden lowering of blood pressure, and concomitant lack of blood and oxygen to the brain. Not long enough or profound enough to cause damage, just enough to…well, make you faint. In some cases syncope is caused by heart problems or other underlying physical ailment; but sometimes it’s something simpler. The Victorian women who required dedicated couches and rooms to faint in? Likely way too tightly corseted. Having recently built and been laced into a corset, I can tell you that it’s unlikely that Regency corsets caused this sort of problem: the cinching doesn’t feature the waist; it’s designed to push the breasts up. The Victorians, with their fondness for 19″ waists, were more likely to fall over from tight lacing.
You don’t have to lace to fall over, of course. I generally don’t, and yet I have a clinical diagnosis of vaso-vagal syncope. Put simply, sometimes my body over-reacts to a harmless stimulus (a momentary stomach cramp, for example) by going into red alert and reducing blood flow to everything but the core systems; the blood flow to my brain slows wait down, and I fall over. What’s it like to faint? There is nothing delicate and ladylike about it. If you’re smart (which I have finally learned to be) you get down low when you start feeling dizzy; if you don’t you can fall flat on your face. I did this once; it had some unfortunate dental side effects. Crumpling gracefully to the ground requires a lot more “postural tone” than you’re likely to have, and most of that is spent fighting the inevitable. Bonks on the head, the chin, the nose, etc. are likely. As for the faint itself, visually everything contracts and gets fuzzy and gray, like monotone tunnel vision that swallows the world. And there’s a ringing in the ears that gets higher pitched as one gets less conscious.
This is all in a matter of seconds.
Coming out of a faint is different depending on how deep a faint it is. Once I found myself on the floor and thought, for a moment, that I was in bed and was waking from a sound sleep. Other times I’m aware, somehow, that I’ve fainted and that I have to get up and get going, that I can’t stay where I am. The first thing I’m really aware of is that ringing in my ears (I fainted in gym class in high school once and came to with the sound of 35 teen aged girls squealing “what happened! what happened!” sounding like a flock of soprano gulls). Then the sight comes back. Finally, the gross motor tone comes back, and you lumber to your feet and give profuse thanks and apologies to the people around you who have been totally freaked out by your falling over.
I have fainted at the top of the up escalator at an NYC department store; in the ladies’ room of a London cinema; in the coffee shop where I sometimes write; in gym class; on the street a few times; and in a doctor’s office (that was convenient). None are ideal. It would be much nicer to have a convenient couch to swoon onto. Preferably with a fainting-room attendant there with a fan and a vinaigrette. Or a nice military man with mustachios to catch me as I slouch gracefully to the ground…