Were The 'mad' Heroines Of Literature Really Sane?

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Interesting piece on "mad" women in fiction and shows how some were based on real life cases.

Were the 'mad' heroines of literature really sane?
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/8622367.stm

By Vivienne Parry
Presenter, Madwomen In The Attic

The mad heroines of classic Victorian fiction have long been objects of fascination.

A scene from the BBC's 1997 production of The Woman in White
Female insanity was often bound up with ideas of sexuality in the 1850s

The violent and feral Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre, the mysterious Woman in White whose escape from an asylum begins Wilkie Collins's gripping thriller, and the terminally delusional Emma in Madame Bovary.

But were they really mad? Would we today recognise them as mentally ill or were our heroines merely misunderstood, not to mention a tad inconvenient?

For Radio 4 documentary, Madwomen in the Attic, medical historians, psychiatrists and literary specialists gave their diagnoses of our troubled heroines.

No restraint

The picture of Mrs Rochester on all fours, baying at the moon, manic laughter ringing through the house, sadly still defines our notions of madness today.

Yet even when Jane Eyre was published in 1847, Charlotte Bronte was criticised for her portrait of insanity.

But Charlotte's brother Branwell was an opium-addicted alcoholic, subject to severe depression.

"While she was writing Jane Eyre downstairs," says Anne Dinsdale, archivist at the Haworth Parsonage - where the Bronte family lived - "Branwell would have been raving in the bedroom on the second floor, where he had been confined because he was a danger.

"He even set the bed on fire."

Bertha Rochester does the same in Jane Eyre.

In the 19th Century women... outnumbered men in Victorian asylums almost two to one

"We have a letter from Charlotte to her publisher," says Anne, "in which she answered her critics saying that 'the character is shocking but all too natural'."

"Bertha is the embodiment of the monstrous lunatic who requires restraint," says historian of madness, Catherine Arnold.

At the time, mental illness was regarded with shame and as evidence of familial "taint".

Even though asylums were available, secrecy was better served by keeping the sufferer confined at home, as Rochester (and the Brontes) did.

There has been much speculation about the first Mrs Rochester's madness.

Notions of female insanity in the 1850s included "unrestrained behaviour," often merely Victorian-speak for female sexuality.

"Attics are where wives who cannot be contained, who are over-sexualised and unruly are stored away," says writer and psychotherapist, Adam Phillips.

And would not anyone have then gone mad, locked up in an attic with gin-sodden Grace Poole?

But Dinesh Bhugra, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, recognises a clear description of schizophrenia in Jane Eyre.

"You can rule out manic depression as there is no evidence of a mood disorder, just a chronic deteriorating condition."

Captive

By the time Wilkie Collins wrote Woman in White in 1860, there were many private and public asylums, including the long established Bethlem Hospital (from which we get the word Bedlam), now the Imperial War Museum.
A scene from the BBC's 1966 production of The Woman In White
The Woman in White may have had learning difficulties

The plot of Woman in White sounds far-fetched - wicked aristocrat Sir Percival Glyde, aided by sinister Count Fosco, plans elaborate asylum switch of sane woman (his rich wife Laura) for madwoman (the nothing-but-white wearing Anne Catherick) in order to get his hands on a fortune.

But it was based on a real-life case, that of millionaire novelist and MP Bulwer Lytton who had his wife Rosina carted off to an asylum when she began to criticise him in public.

She was released only after a public appeal.

"If a man wanted to get rid of his wife, he would simply get two doctors to certify her and lock her up," says John Sutherland, Emeritus professor of English Literature at University College London.

"It's what Dickens himself did when his wife kicked up a fuss at his affair."

But what about the "madwoman", Anne Catherick?

"They talk about her as being feeble-minded as a child and that she'd grow out of it - so perhaps a learning disability as we understand it," says Dinesh Bhugra.

"An asylum wasn't necessary."

Meanwhile he points out that there are a number of plainly certifiable mad-men in Woman in White.

The psychopath Fosco, for instance, or the obsessive compulsive Mr Fairlie. They are admired, not incarcerated.

Frustration

In the 19th Century women were thought to be intrinsically mad by virtue of their femaleness, which made them vulnerable, and women outnumbered men in Victorian asylums almost two to one.

If Jane Eyre looks back to an almost medieval view of madness, Flaubert's Madame Bovary looks forward to the age of Freud and analysis.
Emma Bovary and Rodolphe in the BBC's production of Madame Bovary
Madame Bovary was not mad but a bored fantasist

Madame Bovary marries a dull, unsuccessful doctor called Charles. She dreams of luxury and romance and after the birth of her daughter, embarks on two ruinous affairs.

A serial fantasist and shopaholic, she gets into a monstrous level of debt.

When there is no way out of her debt, she takes poison and dies. It is a coolly analytic portrait of a woman unravelling.

Flaubert knew of the work of Parisian neurologist Charcot (later to be a mentor of Freud) and of his descriptions of hysteria.

"You could argue that Madame Bovary is a clinical case study," says Sandra Gilbert, Professor of English at the University of California.

But is Emma mad?

"No she's not mad, just very frustrated," says Adam Phillips.

And very, very irritating, perhaps particularly to women readers.

"Men find her fascinating and today there is no doubt she'd be a reality TV star, living out her fantasies and celebrated - not censured - for her dreams."

Vivienne Parry presents Madwomen in the Attic on BBC Radio 4 at 1130 BST on Tuesday 20 April 2010 and afterwards on BBC iPlayer.
 
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#2
..."Men find her fascinating and today there is no doubt she'd be a reality TV star, living out her fantasies and celebrated - not censured - for her dreams."...
Some men might, I always found Madame Bovary incredibly irritating.

Of course some 'mad' women in literature were probably driven over the edge by the behaviour of their husbands, and not through any congenital disorder of their own - I'm thinking the heroine of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper as a possible example.
 

PeniG

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That was indeed part of the point Gilman was making in "The Yellow Wallpaper." I usually hesitate to say what an author was or wasn't trying to do, but she had been through the rest cure described herself, and once you know that the critique of it in the story becomes an obvious level of meeting.

I have often had occasion to reflect that, from the outside, the only way to judge mental illness vs. mental health is behavior; and many behaviors are only judged as rational or irrational, functional or dysfunctional, depending on circumstances. The classic example of this is "drapetomania," an insanity peculiar to American black slaves in which they expressed and acted on their irrational desire to be free! Singing and exercise may be recommended as a stress reliever to a person having trouble coping on the outside; the same person who, having suffered a break and gone into a ward, applies that advice to relieve stress and tedium while waiting to be cleared to leave may have "paces the halls singing show tunes" singled out as evidence that s/he's still unable to cope. Since sanity and insanity exist as points on a continuum and are at least partly social categories rather than medical ones, we all have fault lines in our characters along which we would crack under the correct stresses. If treated as insane long enough, most of us would become insane in fact.

The madwomen of literature, of course, were neither sane nor insane - they were fictional. Our reading of the story is affected by how we interpret the descriptions of their behavior. In most cases it is probably possible to read a work fruitfully either way.
 

Gwen_R

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Referring to another thread - this is why the women's rights movement was so important. It wasn't that long ago that women were legally required to have a male guardian because we were seen as lacking the ability to reason - one short step away from insanity. I don't mind having to open doors myself and carry my own bags - legally recognized independence is a priceless trade-off.

This article also brings to mind the benefits of modern medicine. There are women in literature who have gone mad from grief. (I can't think of specific characters.) Is that possible? I think it is. Back when, there were no anti-depressants, and I can fully imagine people literally never recovering, or even dying, from the physical depression caused by a devastating loss. Once the damage is done to your brain, it's very hard to recover. And, poor Bertha Rochester probably would have benefited from haloperidol, or even an early dose of antibiotics from whatever strain of syphilis got to her brain.

I think these stories seem so strange and exaggerated now because we live in an amazing era where medicine actually works. I agree that some women were tossed into asylums because they were "inconvenient." But there are physical conditions suffered only by women, like ovarian cancer, that can cause hallucinations, bizarre behavior or changes in personality.

Who knows... I just know that women in the west are very fortunate today. Precious, precious legal freedoms and good healthcare. Our great-grandmothers could only dream.
 

Peripart

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The plot of Woman in White... was based on a real-life case, that of millionaire novelist and MP Bulwer Lytton who had his wife Rosina carted off to an asylum when she began to criticise him in public.
With that snippet, I now know two things about Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton! The other, of course, is that he wrote one of the most famous opening lines* to a novel in the history of fiction, even though hardly anyone today has read his books, or heard of him.



* "It was a dark and stormy night"
 

Gwen_R

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Peripart said:
The plot of Woman in White... was based on a real-life case, that of millionaire novelist and MP Bulwer Lytton who had his wife Rosina carted off to an asylum when she began to criticise him in public.
With that snippet, I now know two things about Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton! The other, of course, is that he wrote one of the most famous opening lines* to a novel in the history of fiction, even though hardly anyone today has read his books, or heard of him.



* "It was a dark and stormy night"
No wonder she criticised him! Poor woman. Her husband is famous for writing the worst opening line ever.

I was really disappointed in the behavior of Dickens as well. It's funny how he grew to hate overweight matrons when the matron was his own wife. In one of his earliest works, "A Christmas Carol," he has old Scrooge say that he would never, ever criticize the weight of a grandmother. But, as he aged, Dickens became a lecherous version of Scrooge - one who would not only hold a matron's weight against her, but would use the lure of money to drive a wedge between her and her children.
 

EnolaGaia

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#7
"If a man wanted to get rid of his wife, he would simply get two doctors to certify her and lock her up," says John Sutherland, Emeritus professor of English Literature at University College London.

"It's what Dickens himself did when his wife kicked up a fuss at his affair."
I was really disappointed in the behavior of Dickens as well. It's funny how he grew to hate overweight matrons when the matron was his own wife. In one of his earliest works, "A Christmas Carol," he has old Scrooge say that he would never, ever criticize the weight of a grandmother. But, as he aged, Dickens became a lecherous version of Scrooge - one who would not only hold a matron's weight against her, but would use the lure of money to drive a wedge between her and her children.
Recently discovered and analyzed letters describe Dickens' plot to have his estranged wife committed to an asylum.
Charles Dickens Plotted to Send His Sane Wife to an Asylum
Newly analyzed letters reveal that Charles Dickens harbored a sinister plan for his estranged wife, Catherine.

Being married to the Victorian author Charles Dickens was definitely not the best of times.

Long-hidden letters reveal that Dickens sought to have his wife, Catherine, forcibly consigned to an institution — a scheme that fell apart when doctors found no evidence of mental illness in the woman.

At first, the two were happily married (and raised 10 children together). But by the time Charles and Catherine separated in 1858, their relationship was in tatters. John Bowen, a professor of 19th-century literature at the University of York in the United Kingdom, recently uncovered the sordid tale in 98 letters that were kept at Harvard University but never transcribed or analyzed. When Bowen did so, "it was a moment that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up," he said in a statement. ...

The letters were penned by Edward Dutton Cook, a journalist and neighbor of Catherine's following her separation from Charles. ...

The conversations between Cook and Catherine took place nearly 20 years after Catherine and Charles separated, and what she revealed was chilling. After 22 years of marriage, Charles began an affair with a young actress and decided that he was tired of his wife, who had given birth to 10 children "and had lost many of her good looks," Cook wrote in 1879.

"He even tried to shut her up in a lunatic asylum, poor thing!" Cook recounted in the same letter. "But bad as the law is in regard to proof of insanity, he could not quite wrest it to his purpose," Cook wrote.

Scholars have long known that Charles Dickens behaved poorly toward his wife, but the details in Cook's letter are especially damning, Bowen said.

This discovery could also explain Charles Dickens' mysterious falling-out with Dr. Thomas Harrington Tuke, which occurred around the same time that the author's marriage ended, Bowen said in the statement.

Tuke served as superintendent of Manor House Asylum in Chiswick between 1849 and 1888; it's possible that Tuke refused to go along with Charles' plan to falsely commit Catherine, leading the novelist to later refer to Tuke in letters as a "medical donkey" and a "wretched being," Bowen said. ...
SOURCE: https://www.livescience.com/64860-letters-dickens-wife-asylum.html
 

Cochise

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#8
I like mad women. Much more fun. I mean mad as in volatile, mercurial, etc., not with an actual mental illness. The former keep you on your toes (especially if ginger).

Edit. Dickens bores me to tears. I don't think I've ever finished a Dickens book or found anything I've read of his remotely funny or witty.
 
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