Fainting and Swooning – the Degrees of Syncope in the Victorian Era; a Steampunk Feminist Perspective


The Victorian era Fainting Couch

Fainting and swooning were more prevalent in the Victorian era, to the point that they created a piece of furniture for use when feeling weak and dizzy. It was mostlywomen who fainted. There are many reasons behind this cultural phenomenon; I favour the tightness of corsets, the overabundance of clothes worn by women, and Patriarchal society’s expectation that women were ‘weak’ and easily overcome by strong emotions. So, fainting could be put down to both physical and cultural pressures.

(c) Frank Julian Bayes; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Woman Reclining on a Couch, by Walter Bayes.


The medical term for fainting is syncope. It is a short loss of consciousness. Just before a faint, symptoms may include feeling lightheaded, sweating and trembling, clammy and pale skin, blurred vision, among others symptoms. A true faint has a fast onset, a short duration, and spontaneous recovery. It is due to a sudden decrease in blood flow to the entire brain, usually caused by low blood pressure brought on by a physical or emotional shock. A person who has fainted needs to be checked out by a doctor, as a faint can be a sign of underlying medical problems.


Abandoned, by James Tissot, 1882

In literature, there is a difference between a faint and a swoon. A faint is something that occurs when a person gets a terrible shock – a mother reading of the death of her child – or the person is suffering from blood loss – a wounded gentleman can faint and not seem unmanly. Women swoon. They see an old lover … and swoons. A rogue tries to make love to them … and they swoon. Their father asked them a hard question … and they swoon. A swoon seems to be more ‘convenient’.

'Fainting By Numbers' (Victorian book).

A swoon involves fluttering eyelashes and an elegant collapse over a waiting arm or onto a couch. A true faint doesn’t allow for grace, the individual keels over and if they are lucky there is someone to catch them. I swoon online quite frequently … I don’t faint.

In most Victorian era novels, there are faints and swoons. It is gender specific. Fainting women outnumber fainting men by twenty to one, if not more. I could not find ONE Victorian era image of a fainting man. The best I could do was a still from a silent film.


I suspect this may be a swoon…

In my current Steampunk work-in-progress, I have no one fainting or swooning. It isn’t that none of my characters have shocks. It is just that I feel that swooning contributes to a stereotype. The women and men in my novel are too busy to have the time to faint. However, they are overcome with chloroform once or twice. Does that count?


Young Woman Reclining In Spanish Costume by Edouard Manet, 1883. “There will be no damn swooning when I look this good in Capri pants.”



Filed under Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Work-in-Progress, Uncategorized, Victorian Era, Victorian-era Fashion

19 responses to “Fainting and Swooning – the Degrees of Syncope in the Victorian Era; a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

  1. As one who has fainted on occasion, and for good cause (Well: I regard the rapid loss of blood as good cause, regardless of whether it is during a medical context or not!), a few of my extras have been known to faint.

    I believe I littered a ballroom with fainting people at one stage.

    But I’ll take your point re stereotypes and shall henceforth refrain from sending any more women slumping to the floor, unless with good cause. (I believe one or two medical practices of the 18th century would suffice.)

    Always interesting. Cheers!

    • I fainted once from low iron, in my teens, in the middle of my German class. I was mortified, as only ‘weak’ people fainted. I know better now, that people faint for a multitude of reasons. However, when you have someone faint in your stories, it is for reasons of humour, not stereotypes! No lazy writing from Ged!

  2. Liz Nordstrand

    I fainted once after giving blood. It was humiliating, as I had donated many times before and remained in complete control of my faculties. Have swooned a time or two in the privacy of my boudoir, but that’s another kettle of fish entirely!

  3. There was a mention of a fainting couch in a book I was reading. It is ridiculous that they had to act as if they are just as frail and weak as they were portrayed.

  4. Heh. Well, since my story’s fashion is more toward the end of the Victorian Era and into the Edwardian, corsets have started to fall out of favor and tight lacing is right out, so… fainting women will be kept to a minimum. There may be one who might swoon once because she enjoys being the center of attention, but beyond that I’ve got far more New Women running around not having time for that load of tripe.

  5. smithandskarry1

    I have anaemia and lbp so fainting I can certainly identify with! My favourite man-faint was in The Clockwork Man where Burton faints and Swinburne uses his perceived ‘death’ to rifle his best friend’s pockets – hilarious!

    • I too prefer a humorous faint over a dramatic one. As well, that fainting episode was pushing the plot along, which makes it a legitimate event in the story line and not just a lazy stereotyping of a Victorian-era woman. When Elizabeth faints in ‘The Pirates of the Caribbean’, it is an important plot event – and it eventually leads into my favourite line in the movie.

  6. smithandskarry1

    he-he, could be mine does too then 😉

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