Madness in Nineteenth-Century Literature Overview - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

John R. Reed (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Madness," in Victorian Conventions, Ohio University Press, 1975, pp. 193-215.

[In the following essay, Reed traces the connection between the growth of the Romantic movement in the early nineteenth century and the changing opinions among the medical community and the public regarding madness.]

Insanity: An Overview

In Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault described the signal transformation that occurred in Western civilization's conception of madness as a shift from a philosophical to a pathological outlook; "that is, the reduction of the classical experience of unreason to a strictly moral perception of madness, which would secretly serve as a nucleus for all the concepts that the nineteenth century would subsequently vindicate as scientific, positive, and experimental."1 In Foucault's view, the eighteenth-century attitude toward madness depended upon the assumption that it was "the negation of reason." It is a philosophical paradox which itself would be agreeable to the classical taste for order and balance:

For madness, if it is nothing, can manifest itself only by departing from itself, by assuming an appearance in the order of reason and thus becoming the contrary of itself. Which illuminates the paradoxes of the classical experience: madness is always absent, in a perpetual retreat where it is inaccessible, without phenomenal or positive character; and yet it is present and perfectly visible in the singular evidence of the madman.2

This attitude ultimately engendered a fear of madness. What was unlike reason, if left uncontrolled, became evil. Earlier, madness had its acknowledged, if eccentric, place in the pattern of social existence, being treated openly. But by the eighteenth century, it had become a feature of human nature to be hidden and confined. The secrecy surrounding madness helped to cultivate the belief that it was a moral pollutant. "Moral condemnation of the mentally abnormal was as strong a component of eighteenth-century rationalist theology as it was of medical thought, or the inarticulate beliefs of the labouring classes."3 Only an age that admired the complete order of the mind through reason could so deeply fear what it had defined as the principal threat to reason. Samuel Johnson was not alone in his belief that madness was occasioned by too great an indulgence of the imagination; nor was he peculiar in his conviction that the exercise of reason was the means to restrain imagination's whimsy.4

Nigel Walker, concerned with insanity in relation to English law, observed that, since there were no provisions for housing the insane in the eighteenth century, madmen were necessarily confined in jails which "was neither as unjust nor as inhumane as it sounds to modern ears. Private madhouses were few until the end of the eighteenth century, and in any case were beyond the means of all but the well-to-do."5 These madhouses were custodial rather than remedial; haphazardly employing old and new techniques for curing inmates such as surprise baths, emetics, and restraints. About 1755-69 notable changes occurred in the treatment of the insane because of an increased public awareness of social problems raised by the mentally disordered.6 The first real successes with pleas of insanity in court trials began at this time, and voluntary subscription hospitals for the insane were founded.

The only official institution for the insane in England, from 1547, when it was given to the city of London as a hospital for poor lunatics, until 1751, when St. Luke's Hospital for Lunaticks opened, was Bethlehem Hospital. Conditions at Bethlehem had been brutal, but St. Luke's, proposed and operated by William Battie, was to be of a new character. In his A Treatise on Madness (1758) Battie defined madness as "deluded imagination," and distinguished two basic forms of the malady; original madness, which he felt was owing to disorders of the nervous substance, and Consequential Madness, which he attributed "to some remote and accidental cause." He noted that a medical man should not ignore the stomach, intestines or uterus as seats of madness, because of their effect upon the nervous fiber. Battle's innovations were little more than assertions that human beings suffering from madness were much like those afflicted with other diseases, and, though he objected to devices such as opium and induced vomiting to treat madness, he agreed that much madness was as unmanageable as other illnesses. James Monro, who was the physician at Bethlehem, disputed Battie's assumptions and, in his Remarks on Dr. Battie's Treatise on Madness (1758), asserted that madness would be forever incurable and never understood. He defended the time-honored practices of bleeding, purging, and evacuation by vomiting, as means of treating the insane. Despite Monro's response, Battle's book "came to have a considerable influence, especially on nineteenth-century judges."7

The Gentleman's Magazine of January, 1763, published an influential article which criticized the abuses suffered by the insane under confinement,8 and in 1774 an Act for Regulating Private Madhouses was passed though it had little effect. By 1789, "the nature of the King's [George III] illness became generally known, and the topic of insanity was widely discussed in a context which excluded the attitude of moral condemnation."9 With the model of the Retreat, run by the Tuke family at York, lunacy reform began on a national scale with the establishment of county asylums following the Act of 1808.10

Nineteenth-century England was given to superstitions and strange theories about madness, but unlike the eighteenth century it did not so much fear madness as pity it. Moreover, the Romantic movement was in large part a reaction against rationalism.11 If Johnson's contemporaries feared excesses of the imagination, the Romantics exalted them. The ordered existence proposed and desired by neoclassical minds had little appeal for those who sought to emphasize the uniqueness and multiplicity of the individual and the mutability of all existence. The Romantics plunged eagerly into the subjectivism their predecessors had so warily skirted.

Too much of what the Romantics admired smacked of mental imbalance and melancholia for them to feel alien toward the insane. Much of Romanticism was a flirtation with all that had formerly been deemed madness. It is appropriate that the great encyclopedist, Diderot's, subversive sketch, Rameau's Nephew, should have been brought to light by the most classical of Romantics, Goethe, who translated the work and saw it published in 1805. The character of Rameau's nephew represented forces of disorder, immorality and subversion in a society that valued order, and marked a decisive change in attitude toward madness and unreason. It is not so great a step as one might imagine from Diderot's exchange to the nineteenth-century dialogue of the mind with itself that concludes with the mind finding itself disintegrating into antagonistic parts. From Diderot and Rameau's nephew to Byron's Manfred, to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dorian Gray, or Conrad's Secret Sharer, is not a long, nor a complex journey.

By the eighteen thirties, English medicine viewed madness not as a manifestation of evil but as a consequence of social conditions, all too likely to strike nearby and unexpectedly. In A General View of the Present State of Lunatics and Lunatic Asylums, in Great Britain and Ireland, and in some other Kingdoms (1828), Sir Andrew Halliday declared that insanity was a result of the refinement of the organs." The finer the organs of the mind have become by their greater development, or their better cultivation, if health is not made a part of the process," he averred, "the more easily are they disordered."12 At the same time, George Burrows suggested, in Commentaries on the Causes, Forms, Symptoms and Treatment, Moral and Medical, of Insanity (1828), that intellectual derangements were induced mainly by society at large."The vices of civilization, of course, must conduce to their increase," he said, "but even the moral virtues, religion, politics, nay philosophy itself, and all the best feelings of our nature, if too enthusiastically incited, class among the causes producing intellectual disorders."13 For Burrows, as for Battie before him, madness was both constitutional and educational. It was no longer the simple result of too much scholarship or precarious religious convictions, it was now another aberration of a humanity that was, more and more, emerging as multiple and mysterious.

John Conolly wrote in his study, An Inquiry Concerning the Indications of Insanity with suggestions for the better protection and care of the insane (1830):

Insanity is often but a mere aggravation of little weaknesses, or a prolongation of transient varieties and moods of mind, which all men now and then experience; an exaggeration of common passions and emotions, such as fear, suspicion, admiration; or a perpetuation of absurdities of thought or action, or of irregularities of volition, or of mere sensation, which may occur in all minds, or be indulged in by all men, but which are cherished and dwelt upon only by a mind diseased. (pp. 166-67)

Allowing that mental disorders were ascribable to "corporeal disease," Conolly nonetheless admitted that there was no clear relationship. And he declared that the error, thus far, of medical men was that they "sought for, and imagined, a strong and definable boundary between sanity and insanity, which has not only been imaginary, and arbitrarily placed," but hurtful to those so segregated. (pp. 295-96) No longer was madness in a realm clearly discrete from that of reason. Reason and unreason could abide together in a constantly changing climate of human unpredictability. The extraordinary having become attractive, it was no longer necessary to fear the outrageous or unusual in human behavior. It was only necessary to appreciate it and correctly estimate its effect. "Every man is interested in this subject," Conolly says, "for no man can confidently reckon on the continuance of his perfect reason." Any departure from sound mind might occasion the loss of property and liberty, and subject the individual to sufferings and wrongs, passing "his melancholy days among the idiotic and the mad." (pp. 8-9) It was an ominous possibility that was, as we shall see, too often enacted.14 But, if madness was now no stranger to the community, but a near companion of simple eccentricity, it remained to distinguish just what the difference was. For Conolly, and many in his time, insanity became "the impairment of any one or more of the faculties of the mind, accompanied with, or inducing, a defect in the comparing faculty." (p. 300) From this point on, consideration of the insane was in the realm of the positivists, or, as we have them today, the clinical psychologists, the behaviorists.

Among the first who sought to apply clinical methods to the understanding of aberrant states of mind, were the phrenologists. Foremost among these was Johann Christoph Spurzheim, who, in Phrenology, or the Doctrine of the Mind; and of the Relations between Its Manifestations and the Body (1825), set forth his theory concerning the parts of the brain and their influence upon human behavior. More directly concerned with the problem of madness was his later study, Observations on the Deranged Manifestations of The Mind, or Insanity (1833), where he argued for improved training of medical men to treat insanity. Although Spurzheim was largely concerned with derangements of external functions of the mind, he believed that "no branch of medicine is so intimately connected with the philosophy of the mind as insanity." (p. 49) He was fully convinced that the causes of insanity were corporeal and declared that, "The soul cannot fall sick, any more than it can die." (p. 75) In his opinion, "the incapacity of distinguishing the diseased functions of the mind, and the irresistibility of our actions," constituted insanity. (p. 53) Spurzheim's views of the various causes of insanity became common in the nineteenth century. Affections and passions, or intense study were popularly accepted as causes of insanity. The crime of seduction, Spurzheim said, was also a fertile source of insanity, as were religion and intemperance. He declared women more inclined to madness than men, and added that "the greatest number of insane females are the victims of amativeness." (p. 126) He attributed the high proportion of insane people in England and Ireland, compared with other countries, to the excessive indulgence in "the sentiment of self-esteem and independency." (p. 124) He proposed, therefore, that the treatment of the insane was primarily moral.

Concern for the problem of madness coupled with a suspicion that insanity was on the increase, led to the establishment of the Metropolitan Commission in Lunacy, which issued an impressive series of reports between 1829-1844, at which time their report acknowledged "that insanity comprises a complex of causes and effects—not merely one disease with a single cause."15 The stringent Lunacy Act of 1845 followed; and, thereafter, insanity was increasingly viewed as a social and medical, not a moral problem. In 1859, a Select Committee under the guidance of Lord Shaftesbury was formed to study the lunacy laws, and it found many instances of abuse, particularly in workhouses. But despite these advances, treatment of the insane was a difficult issue and a controversial subject preceding the Lunacy Act of 1890.

Madness in Literature

In the literature of the nineteenth century, the subject of madness was gradually liberated from its frightening associations, and was treated with interest, and in some cases, even admiration. In Gothic fiction, insanity had enhanced supernatural effects and was primarily a terrible prospect, a curse imposed by gods or devils. With the Romantics, a new notion appeared, indicated benignly in Wordsworth's "The Idiot Boy." But beyond acceptance, admiration was possible.

In Byron's "The Dream," for example, an unhappy marriage and frustrated love lead to madness. But this disturbance of normal intellectual life hardly seems, in the circumstances, so terrible. Of the distracted lady, Byron writes:

oh! she was changed,
As by the sickness of the soul; her mind
Had wander'd from its dwelling, and her eyes,
They had not their own lustre, but the look
Which is not of the earth; she was become
The queen of a fantastic realm; her thoughts
Were combinations of disjointed things;
And forms impalpable and unperceiv'd
Of others' sight familiar were to hers.
And this the world calls phrenzy; but the wise
Have a far deeper madness, and the glance
Of melancholy is a fearful gift;
What is it but the telescope of truth?
Which strips the distance of its fantasies,
And brings life near in utter nakedness,
Making the cold reality too real!

There is no fear of the insane here, only pity and respect. To have been driven mad through the frustration of a passionate love was not among the crimes or offenses of the nineteenth century.

Likewise, it was not shameful to have had one's reason unseated by other severe shocks. Hence, the pious and cordial Mrs. Aubrey in Samuel Warren's Ten Thousand A-Year loses her reason when she learns that her family must abandon the family estate, Yatton. Her reason returns just in time for her to die a peaceful death. In the same novel, however, Warren draws a picture of a despicable form of lunacy. The ludicrous central character, Tittlebat Titmouse, who is constantly provoked by minor annoyances to exclaim that he shall go mad, eventually does lapse into lunacy after having indulged in various debaucheries and having been deprived of Yatton. In the end, he is "admitted an inmate of a private lunatic asylum." (Vol. 3, ch. 12) This use of lunacy in fiction was, of course, a cautionary device. A relationship between dissipation and madness is frequently assumed, as in Thackeray's early work, The Adventures of Barry Lyndon. Graphic works such as Hogarth's "The Rake's Progress," or Cruikshank's "The Bottle," offered similar warnings and paralleled later medical caveats, such as those Walter describes in My Secret Life, that masturbation would surely result in madness.

Dissipation and debauchery were not the only deviations that might lead to madness. The innocent might also suffer as Mrs. Aubrey's case suggests. Duels were frequently presented as sources of madness, especially for the bereaved survivors. If the historians of duelling can be trusted, there seems to have been a good deal of truth in such portrayals. Lorenzo Sabine quotes one such event, "Duelling: A Tale of Woe," in his Notes on Duels and Duelling (1856), and Andrew Steinmetz, in recounting the details of a duel between a Mr. McLean and a Mr. Cameron in Scotland in 1772, in which Mr. McLean was killed, says that "His mother hearing of this melancholy event, was instantly deprived of her senses, and Miss McLeod, a young lady to whom McLean was soon to be married, was seized with fits and died three days later."16 Such historical incidents make Lucy's madness at the end of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel more credible.

In Lavengro, George Borrow relates the history of a gentleman who, through his and his family's foolish attraction to the Roman Catholic faith, ended in lunacy. (ch. 100) Clearly any folly might devolve into madness. The folly need not be one's own. The father in T. P. Prest's novel, The Maniac Father (1844), was not an unfamiliar type. His madness was consequent upon his daughter's loss of virtue.17 Prest used the same figure in Vice and Its Victims: Or, Phoebe, the Peasant's Daughter, in which Mr. Mayfield goes insane when his daughter, Phoebe, elopes with a profligate lord. Mayfield recovers abruptly, however, when he learns that Phoebe's marriage was legal. Loss of virtue could occasion madness in the violated party as well. In Bulwer-Lytton's popular novel, Pelham (1828), Gertrude Douglas, beloved by Reginald Glanville, is driven mad as a consequence of being raped by the unscrupulous Tyrrell. Fortunately, she dies. Glanville, in his grief and revenge, comes close to madness himself, but never is this excess criticized. It is clear in the novel that this authentic insanity and near-madness follow from an excess of admirable qualities.18 When a noble mind is faced with insupportable emotions, it cannot bend or wheedle; it cracks. Throughout the century, madness took one of two fundamental literary routes: either it was the result of a sinful, ruined life, or it was the necessary consequence of a passionate nature trapped in unbearable circumstances.

Among the earliest and most memorable instances of madness resulting from offended virtue was Scott's Lucy Ashton in The Bride of Lammermoor (1819). The sensitive but too highly susceptible imagination of young Lucy leads her to the violent and tragic loss of reason that a stronger but less passionate nature might have overcome. Lucy goes mad on her wedding night, when her unwanted husband enters her bedchamber. The theme of offended love begetting madness was persistent, but Scott provided other memorable models of insanity as well. The innocent madness of Davie Gellatley in Waverley or Madge Wildfire in The Heart of Midlothian reappeared in Dickens' innocently haunted Barnaby Rudge, whose simple-mindedness results directly from the criminal violence of his vicious father. And the insane Bertha Mason's death in the blazing destruction of Thornfield Hall in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre had as its model a similar death of a maniac in a burning tower in Scott's Ivanhoe. Kathleen Jones finds Bertha Mason thoroughly conventional, describing her as Charlotte Brontë's "figment of the imagination stimulated by the horror novels of the late eighteenth century. Mrs. Rochester is a figure from The Castle of Otranto or the later 'penny dreadfuls'—not a personification of an existing social problem."19 But the public would have been far more prepared to accept this conventional view than any realistic social characterization. Still, in utilizing the conventional type, Charlotte Brontë implied psychological realities that social comment might not have explored. The hidden Bertha is a symbol of confined passion, representing the powerful and destructive urges in man that Jane Eyre's self-control promises to remedy. Images of fire and violence prepare for the final destruction of Rochester's guilty secret, after which, a subdued man, he is fit to share his life more temperately with the disciplined Jane.

Madness for Scott was a means of advancing and complicating his plots; he rarely stopped to preach or offer symbolic overtones. His practices were imitated in much of the popular literature of the nineteenth century where certain stereotyped situations recurred regularly. Dickens' "A Madman's Manuscript," one of the interpolated tales of Pickwick Papers, offers splendid examples of all of the conventions. There is a history of madness in the narrator's family, though an editorial note to the manuscript describes this history as the narrator's "delusion." The madman himself is described as "a melancholy instance of the baneful results of energies misdirected in early life, and excesses prolonged until their consequences could never be repaired. The thoughtless riot, dissipation, and debauchery of his younger days, produced fever and delirium." (ch. 11) The predictable moral is not lacking, nor is the customary inclusion of an unfortunate romance. There is an echo of Scott's Bride of Lammermoor in the madman's account of his relationship with a young lady who eventually becomes his wife and dies by his hand. This young lady is, like Lucy Ashton, a victim of family interests, but unlike Lucy, is the target for insane violence rather than its vehicle. After his homicidal outbreak, the madman ends where all who permit their appetites unbridled sway are in danger of ending, in an asylum, haunted by a spectre of his crimes.

This crude tale is thoroughly in the conventional mold but Dickens attempted other modifications of madness in other novels.20 Barnaby Rudge, who, as Poe was quick to observe, was hardly a successful character, recalled, as Kathleen Tillotson put it, "the theatrical stereotypes of lunacy."21 Gordon, in the same novel, is more plausible but so much more subtle as to constitute less an example of madness than of eccentricity or deviation. Dickens does, however, manage to equate the madness of society with Gordon's deviation and indicates how different it is from Barnaby's innocent symptoms. It is a segment of society that is mad in this novel, and it is this lunacy that is more aptly depicted by Dickens than any specific individual instance. Moreover, this madness is itself associated with forces long restrained that must, after all, break loose in wild abandon. For Dickens, madness becomes a form of social infection that must be...

(The entire section is 9738 words.)