The Relationship between Madness and Gender in Victorian Literature

Categories: Victorian Era

Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White shows the relationship between madness and gender in the female characters of Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie. However, although there was a larger number of female patients in the asylum, Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie are unconventional choices for the Victorian ‘madwoman’, as they appear to conform to the Victorian ‘angel of the house’ ideal. Lyn Pykell argues that “the classic nineteenth-century madwoman is the deviant, energetic woman who defies familial and social control.

In The Woman in White, however, it is the passive, controlled, domestic women, Anne and Laura, who are ‘mad’” . Due to this description it would be Marian that would have been the more likely canadant for the role of the ‘madwoman’ with her masculine energetic behaviour. But Anne is not as controlled and passive as Pykell suggests as she runs from the asylum and when Walter meets her at Mrs Fairlie’s grave he fears her. However, like Laura she does not seek to disrupt the structures of the Victorian family, instead they resist Sir Percival to restore the ideals of the Victorian domestic sphere.

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Laura returns to the marial sphere with Walter and Anne seeks to uphold the memory of Mrs Fairlie. They are both ironically confined to the asylum for upholding the conventions of the Victorian domestic space and the family. Similarly, Helen in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall also tries to retain the ideals of the victorian home, hence by running away with her son Arthur to protect him from his father’s influence.

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But like Anne and Laura she is not punished with confinement to an asylum.

However, the Victorian asylum was not the cruel place in which modern readers associate it as McCandless argues that “The nineteenth century saw the rapid expansion of an asylum system designed ‘mercifully to control’ the insane, a development of which many Englishmen felt proud. Yet this pride was often accompanied by an endemic, nagging fear that persons were being improperly confined in asylums . A fear that Collins’s used in his novel The Woman in White as both Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie are wrongly confined to an asylum by Sir Percival Glyde, for the threat they pose to his reputation. Sir Percival describes Anne as “just mad enough to be shut up, and just sane enough to ruin me when she’s at large and with Laura it is because of his belief that she knows his ‘secret’ and for her money to pay his debts. However, although this fear of wrongfully incarcerating of women in Asylums seems far fetched to modern reader it is not as fictitious as it seem. In 1819, there was the case of Jane Housman was admitted to a private asylum for no reason other than a plot by her uncle “to secure the substantial pension which she received from her brother, a wealthy East India Company official”. This was by no means the only case of wrongful incarceration of women for financial gain. Walter untermaily connects the idea of wrongful imprisonment with Anne Catherick on his first meeting her; “But the idea of absolute insanity which we all associate with the very name of an Asylum, had, I can honestly declare, never occurred to me, in connexion with her. I had seen nothing, in her language or her actions, to justify it at the time”. This immediately makes the reader question why Anne Catherick has been confined to the Asylum in the first place. However, although Walter implies that Anne has been the ‘victim’ of “false imprisonment”, he then questions his actions; that he has set loose a madwoman that “it was my duty, and every man’s duty… to control”. Walter in this instance shows the nineteenth century ideology that the madwomen needs to be ‘controlled’ by the men around her and silenced.

However, Anne is not always portrayed as sane, as her madness is provoked by the mention of Sir Percival;

“Her face, at all ordinary times so touching to look at, in its nervous sensitiveness, weakness, and uncertainty, became suddenly darkened by an expression of maniacally intense hatred and fear, which communicated a wild, unnatural force to every feature. Her eyes dilated in the dim evening light, like the eyes of a wild animal. She caught up the cloth that had fallen at her side, as if it had been a living creature that she could kill, and crushed it in both her hands with such convulsive strength that the few drops of moisture left in it trickled down on the stone beneath her.

She is described as animalistic in her madness as her expression is “wild” and her eyes are “like the eyes of a wild animal”. The notion of the animalistic and insanity are associated with each other in literature as Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre is also described as such. The power of her “hatred” of Sir Percival is also expressed in her handling of the ‘cloth’ that symbolise a ‘living creature’ that she wants to ‘kill’, ‘crush’ and ‘catch’. The “few drops of moisture” that comes from the cloth symbolises blood. Her madness is shown as a direct response to her “hatred and fear” of Sir Percival in which she has suffered at his hands. Similarly in The Tenant of WIldfell Hall Helen is compared to a domesticated animal. Huntingdon in one of his alcohol fuelled rages strakes the dog with a book; “He called again more sharply, but Dash only clung the closer to me, and licked my hand as if imploring protection. Enraged at this, his master snatched up a heavy book and hurled it at his head” that results in Helen’s hand getting ignored. It is clear that the dog becomes a symbolic stand in for Helen as animal cruelty and abuse are linked as both wife and dog are owned and subservient to him. However, Helen is not a mad woman like Anne but her abuse comes as a result of the drunken behaviour of her husband, showing that the animalistic comparisons come from a result of the abuse of power by men.

However, the Victorian man was not immune to madness as Wise argues that “ the far more sophisticated masculine mind was under threat from overwork, business ambition, heavy drinking, the solitary vice, debt, gambling, celibacy or debauchery. High levels of self-control and conformity were demanded of ‘respectable’ males”. The “heavy drinking”, “debt”, “gambling” and “debauchery” are the definition of Mr Huntingdon’s vices, but this also shows that intemperance or alcoholism could get the victorian man confined to an asylum. But his alcoholism is represents a culture of masculine excess, that is replicated in his social group. But it also brought forward of the debate on the ‘drinking question’, as Torgerson argues that the problem of intoxication was not limited to the working classes whose “tyrannical drinking usages” were the target of Victorian anger. It is Huntingdon’s gentleman status that allows his to get away with drinking to excess, “I wish he had something to do, some useful trade, or profession, or employment - anything to occupy his head or his hands for a few hours a day, give him something besides his own pleasure to think about . Although this intoxication was seen as a problem for the working class man, to a gentleman the ability to ingest large amounts of alcohol was ingrained as a positive attribute into the Victorian ideals of masculinity. This is seen when Helen says that little Arthur detests the “very sight of wine” in which Markham warms her that she will make him “the most veriest milksop that was ever sopped and a “mere Miss Nancy”. Also, in The Woman in White, the novel shows the attitudes to mental illness are dependant to the gender of the person affected. Showalter argues that the “melancholia” was perceived as a “fashionable illness” that was associated with “the intellectual and economic pressures on highly civilized men” . This mainly affected the middle-class poets, artists and aristocratic men not the labouring classes. Hence this “melancholia” is seen mostly in the character of Sir Percival, the Blackwater lake is a metaphor for his “melancholic” and obsessive mind. The vegetation around the lake shows his paranoia with the “rank grass”, “twining reeds and rushes”, and the “dismal willows” portray that he is prone to melancholy moods. But in the novel this is not seen as a good thing as he is prone to violence and plots against his wife. Walter is another character that experiences “melancholia” as he defines the grief of Laura’s as his own showing the narcissism associated with melancholia, “In the right of her calamity, in the right of her friendlessness, she was mine at last! Mine to support, to protect, to cherish, to restore.” But unlike Sir Percival and Arthur Huntingdon, Walter does not let this degrade him instead he does what he can to earn money.

The language used by Walter to describe Anne’s madness as a contagious disease, suggests the belief that a woman’s madness would infect the domestic space. When Walter reads Anne’s letter to Laura he says;

“Those words and the doubt which had just escaped me as to the sanity of the writer of the letter… I began to doubt whether my own faculties were not in danger of losing their balance. It seemed almost like a monomania to be tracing back everything strange that happened, everything unexpected that was said, always to the same hidden source and the same sinister influence”.

He fears the influence of Anne’s mental illness on the people around her and himself. The idea of female madness as a contagion in the domestic sphere was a reason for the family to incarnation them in asylums. John Conolly, a physician at the Middlesex County Asylum who introduced the idea of non-restraint treatment for the insane, wrote that “lady-patients, so long as they remain at home, all domestic influences usually cease to benefit them; they live in an insane reverie…In the meantime, the habitation of the family has been full of anxiety or terror. The remotest parts of it have been rendered awful, by the presence of a deranged creature under the same roof”. His idea of the “lady-patients” mental illness contaminating the Victorian home and disabling it caused great fear that is also shown in The Woman in White. From when the reader first means Anne Catherick she is the antagonist to the Victorian domestic space and its conventions. When Walter first meets her he says “Had I really left, little more than an hour since, the quiet, decent, conventionally-domestic atmosphere of my mother’s cottage?” . It is from this domestic middle-class victorian bliss that Walter descends into the upper-class world of Fairlie’s that starts the story of crime, madness and evil plots. Anne embodies the mental and moral failings of the upper-class, with the sin of her mother invested on her due to Mrs Catherick affair with Mr Fairlie, and her failings to live up to the Victorian female ideal. But Walter’s mother and sisters represent the middle-class ‘angel of the house’ ideal. It is interesting to note that John Conolly’s ideas of the ‘lady-patients’ illness affecting the rest of the household is similar to the way that Arthur Huntingdon’s drinking effects his household in The Tenant of WIldfell Hall. His habits seem to affect his son’s behaviour like Conolly believed the female insane patient would if left at home, Helen writes that “the little fellow ... learnt to tipple wine like papa, to swear like Mr Hatterslay, and to have his own way like a man, and sent mamma to the devil when she tried to prevent him”. This outrageous behaviour has such an affect on little Arthur that Helen results to putting ‘tert’ in his wine to stop him from liking wine.

Also, Arthur Huntingdon’s alcoholism is described by Helen in the terms of a contagious disease. Helen records that to Arthur wine has become “something more to him than an accessory to social enjoyment” , gradually “degenerat[ing] his once noble constitution, and vitiat[ing] the whole system of his organisation”. And that in “this time of weakness and depression he would have made it his medicine”. This ‘absolute boundage” shows the extant of his dependance on alcohol. The reference to it as a “medicine” when iconically it is the very thing that kills him as his death is preventable if he did not drink so heavily; as the fall would “have been but trifling to a man of temperate habits”.

But although Laura is considered Sane in the novel she does have a moment of what appears to be insanity. She indulges her passionate love for Walter before her marriage, in which Marian describes Laura’s outburst as “hysterical vehemence” suggesting that female sexuality is the cause of madness in women. Hysteria was a common female mental illness in the nineteenth century, that could get the women admitted to an Asylum. Showalter states that “hysteria as a diagnosis, arising from the Greek hysterika meaning womb, assumed that women were particularly vulnerable to succumb to madness”. Also, the fact that women outnumbered men in asylums in the mid nineteenth century solidified the idea that women were more prone to insanity. Laura is so overtaken in her passions that Marian explains that “I tried vainly to soothe and reason with her - she was past being soothed, and past being reasoned with. … When the fit had worn itself out she was too exhausted to speak”.

Updated: Feb 27, 2024
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The Relationship between Madness and Gender in Victorian Literature. (2024, Feb 27). Retrieved from

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