Cardiff Metropolitan University
Barbara Ann Stensland PhD Figshare.pdf (595.37 kB)

‘Ottilie & Grace: All in your head – writing the female experience of multiple sclerosis (MS) and the enduring legacy of hysteria

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posted on 2024-04-23, 07:27 authored by Barbara Stensland

‘Ottilie & Grace: All in your head – writing the female experience of multiple sclerosis (MS) and the enduring legacy of hysteria’ is the result of practice research, consisting of a 68,000-word novel and a 23,000-word critical and contextual commentary examining the process of writing that novel. Both the novel and the critical commentary explore illness through the lens of phenomenology, the philosophical study of structures and experience.

The creative element aims to convey and illustrate the enduring legacy of ‘hysteria’ through the two protagonists - Ottilie, a Victorian woman, and Grace, who lives in contemporary times. Although the novel portrays women being diagnosed and treated for neurological illnesses, the characters themselves are not initially aware of their conditions. The two protagonists occupy the same house over 130 years apart whilst experiencing similar symptoms of worsening health. As fears for their own health grow, so do the external pressures to accept that their symptoms are ‘all in the mind’. The women meet, through time travel, and this allows them a mutual place of safety in which they can explore their equally disorientating circumstances.

The critical commentary element of the thesis investigates how the taint of ‘hysteria’ continues to be deeply embedded in medical patriarchy, in the context of diagnosing and treating women with neurological conditions such as MS. The commentary also examines the portrayal of MS and its symptoms in fiction writing. Following a discussion of society’s views of disability, it then explores the creative process and the concept of time and space within fiction. Each element interrogates and highlights my own experience of living with MS and reflects my choice to approach this with humour.

The work made available here represents the critical commentary element of the thesis.



  • School of Education and Social Policy

Embargo Date

On novel element only, for five years

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

Qualification name

  • PhD

Publication year


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