Madness in Nineteenth-Century Literature Fiction

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Spectator (essay date 1866)

SOURCE: "Madness in Novels," in The Spectator, Vol. 39, Feb. 3, 1866, pp. 134-35.

[In the following essay, the anonymous critic examines the trend of depicting madness in novels. The critic maintains that in novels such as St. Martin's Eve and The Clyffards of Clyffe, madness is used as a tool to disguise the lack of art in the novel.]

The hint given by Miss Braddon has been very quickly taken. For her purpose it was necessary to strengthen the old machinery of novel-writing, to introduce changes more frequent, acts more unaccountable, catastrophes more violent and appalling. She did not wish, being artist after her kind, to introduce these things absolutely without explanation, and yet where was the explanation to be found? The world, strangely tolerant of supernatural machinery in real life, half inclined to believe in instructions from the dead and messages from above, in people who can float through the air and people for whose sake the souls of the just are willing to proclaim themselves arrant fools, is nevertheless very intolerant of the supernatural in novels. If any young lady kills somebody because an angel told her to do it, which, granted the angelic command, might not be an unnatural proceeding, we simply shut the book, and refuse to read anything its author may subsequently have to produce. On the other hand, the author cannot avail himself of the old instrument, self-will as developed among those who never felt any external restraint. Gilles de Retz would simply be disgusting in a modern novel. If the tyrannous baron in a story sends retainers to kill his daughter's low-born lover, we unconsciously inquire why the lover does not apply to the police. Even the machinery of passion must be kept within due bounds. The nineteenth century believes in love and jealousy, and in a feeble way even in hate, but it is aware nevertheless that the mental concentrativeness out of which these passions spring is in this age rare, that it is hard for John to hate Thomas up to the point of killing him if John reads the Times every morning at breakfast, that when there are ten Jills for one Jack love can hardly be intensely individual, that jealousy, of all passions, dies amid a multiplicity of interests and pursuits. It believes in fact in Trollope rather than in Mrs. Radcliffe. The sensationalist was at fault, for to make a sensational novel "harrowing" there must be motive, impulse, human act, and human suffering, as well as mere incident. To "bring your 'art to your mouth" there must be a soul as well as a life in peril. A tumble down a well is nothing, a wife who throws her husband down one is much. One does not tumble down wells, but in the murder one may, if it is only artistically told, recognize the undeveloped wild beast in one's own heart. Miss Braddon perceived this, and it is to her credit that she discerned a mode of restoring the lost sensational effect to character. Madness may intensify any quality, courage, or hate, or jealousy, or wickedness, and she made Lady Audley mad. Thencefor-ward she was released from the irksome régime of the probable. Nobody could say that a yellow-haired goddess, surrounded with every luxury, and delighting in them all, fond of dress, and furniture, and high feeding, with intense appreciation of art, and of art in its domesticated form, would not for very refinement push her husband down a well or burn a village inn. Who knows what a mad woman would or would not do? Who realizes her impulses, or those wild temptations which are not impulses, which so far from developing the character, are so unlike it that the Oriental world to this day holds madness and possession synonymous, and reverences the mad. Probability became unnecessary, vraisemblance a burden, naturalness a mistake in art, everything was possible, and the less possible the emotion the greater the surprise and pleasure.

It was a great discovery, and novelists have not been slow to seize it. Here is Mrs. H....

(The entire section is 60,095 words.)