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The Most Dreadful Visitation

The Most Dreadful Visitation: Male Madness in Victorian Fiction

Volume: 46
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 1
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    The Most Dreadful Visitation
    Book Description:

    A PDF version of this book is available for free in open access via the OAPEN Library platform, Click here to download Victorian literature is rife with scenes of madness, with mental disorder functioning as everything from a simple plot device to a commentary on the foundations of Victorian society. But while madness in Victorian fiction has been much studied, most scholarship has focused on the portrayal of madness in women; male mental disorder in the period has suffered comparative neglect. Valerie Pedlar corrects this imbalance in The ‘Most Dreadful Visitation.’ This extraordinary study explores a wide range of Victorian writings to consider the relationship between the portrayal of mental illness in literary works and the portrayal of similar disorders in the writings of doctors and psychologists. Pedlar presents in-depth studies of Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge, Tennyson’s Maud, Wilkie Collins’s Basil, and Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, considering each work in the context of Victorian understandings—and fears—of mental degeneracy.

    eISBN: 978-1-84631-418-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-26)

    In 1842, whilst he was staying in New York, Charles Dickens visited a lunatic asylum on Long Island or Rhode Island (‘I forget which’). He depicts the scene graphically:

    The moping idiot, cowering down with long, dishevelled hair; the gibbering maniac, with his hideous laugh and pointed finger; the vacant eye, the fierce wild face, the gloomy picking of the hands and lips, and munching of the nails; there they were all, without disguise, in naked ugliness and horror.¹

    In part his horror at the sight of these mad people is inspired by the dreary, dirty, ill-ordered conditions in which...

  5. 1 Insurrection and Imagination: Idiocy and Barnaby Rudge
    (pp. 27-52)

    ‘It is something to look upon enjoyment, so that it be free and wild and in the face of nature, though it is but the enjoyment of an idiot,’ says the narrator ofBarnaby Rudge. ‘Who would not rather see a poor idiot happy in the sunlight, than a wise man pining in a darkened jail!’¹ Dickens’s representations of idiocy and insanity are permeated by images of light and darkness, confinement and liberty. Although his fictional work makes little reference to the institutions of madness, a range of mad and eccentric men and women contribute their individuality to the panorama...

  6. 2 Thwarted Lovers: Basil and Maud
    (pp. 53-79)

    Both the despairing protagonist (significantly unnamed) of Tennyson’sMaudand the eponymous protagonist of Wilkie Collins’sBasilare acutely aware of their shaky masculinity.¹ Narrated with the particular intensity and intimacy of a first-person perspective, both novel and poem are able to convey vividly the psychic dimension of identity as well as the material circumstances of its construction. The two texts that form the basis for this chapter focus on young men who admire a woman from a distance, fall in love with her, find themselves fighting a rival, suffer a breakdown and finally, arguably, recover.² As Helen Small has...

  7. 3 Wrongful Confinement, Sensationalism and Hard Cash
    (pp. 80-110)

    Even before the large-scale building of county asylums promoted by the 1845 Lunatics Act, the fear of wrongful confinement was apparent. In 1728 Daniel Defoe castigated the ‘vile Practice now so much in vogue among the better Sort, as they are called, but the worst sort in fact, namely, the sending their Wives to Mad-Houses at every Whim or Dislike, that they may be more secure and undisturb’d in their Debaucheries’.¹ John Conolly voiced a similar anxiety over the possible abuse of the system in 1830:

    The facts which have been alluded to in the foregoing Inquiry, show, that the...

  8. 4 Madness and Marriage
    (pp. 111-133)

    In 1858 Robert and Charlotte Bostock appealed to the new Divorce Court for judicial separation, one of the first cases to be heard after the Divorce Act of 1857. The differences between them derived from problems in negotiating a course between authority and its abuse on the part of the husband, and between defiance and submission on the part of the wife. At one stage of their quarrels, surgeons who had been called in by Charlotte advised her that her husband should be tended by a ‘keeper’ because of the danger of sudden attack. There were signs that Robert was...

  9. 5 The Zoophagous Maniac: Madness and Degeneracy in Dracula
    (pp. 134-158)

    Max Nordau’s evocation of the spirit of the age at the end of the nineteenth century caused a sensation when it was first published. He tapped into a rich vein of commentary in which cultural and moral criticism were intertwined, as the trial of Oscar Wilde so poignantly demonstrates. Nordau’s journalistic flamboyance feeds off the very culture it attacks. For Nordau, inspired by the work of Lombroso and Morel, the period was one of degeneration, which he defines as a disease affiliated with hysteria. Both are associated with the nervousness that is part of life in modern industrial society. Like...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 159-162)

    It is now twenty years since Elaine Showalter’s ground-breaking studyThe Female Maladywas published. This wonderfully rich and suggestive book advances the thesis that ‘madness, even when experienced by men, is metaphorically and symbolically represented as feminine: a female malady’ (p. 4). Showalter’s study of the cultural history of madness as a female malady covers the representation of madwomen in literary, clinical and legal texts, and in visual media. I have confined my area of research to the nineteenth century and furthermore to literary representations of mad men, in an attempt to investigate her claim that madness is a...

  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 163-177)
  12. Index
    (pp. 178-184)