For decades, researchers have been puzzled by the seemingly rampant fainting amongst upper-class women in the nineteenth century. This week, however, a team of archivists working out of London uncovered a letter collection that holds the answer: Victorian women were doing a really funny bit.
In a statement posted to their blog, the London team explains that the fainting trend originated as an inside joke that socialite Della Taylor did with her friends. The bit began as Della’s impression of a friend who collapsed randomly.
“I know I shouldn’t have been laughing so much about Marion,” writes Della in a letter found early in the collection, “Tell me if I was being mean when I imitated her—I seriously do like her as a person.”
Writing in reply, Della’s friends console her and some of them confess to enjoying the bit.
One friend, Edna Price, wrote back immediately upon receiving the message.
“Della. You literally weren’t making fun of Marion. You were making fun of the ridiculousness of the situation,” the 1846 correspondence reads. “I feel like if Marion were there she wouldn’t even care that much.”
With Edna’s encouragement, Della started doing the bit with regularity. Other women took note of the running joke and began to adopt the gag in different ways. Some women added a noise or gesture, some women fell off high places like a horse, and some women committed to the bit so hard they died.
A few months into this development, Della sent a letter to Edna to express her annoyance.
“I don’t want to make a big deal out of it,” writes Della. ”But I feel that some of the fainting I’m seeing is hack. Like maybe some of them came up with it on their own, but I honestly think we influenced people.”.
Edna encourages her to step away from the whole situation for a time and go to the coast.
In the conclusion to their blog post, the team remains especially in awe about two of their findings. “First, we now know that the fainting couch was invented in response to a bit—pretty remarkable. And second? Victorian women did not like joke stealing.”