Are You Well Read?


September 5, 2011

Question: How many 19th century novels (short stories or novellas) can you name that prominently feature a character who descends into madness?

Hint: One famous novel features a madwoman in the attic.

Answer: Nineteenth-century literature reflects changing Victorian attitudes to mental illness. In the early decades, madness was often described in terms conveying horror and disgust. Only in later novels do we find a more compassionate portrait of mental illness. Indeed, this adjustment in attitude was evidenced in two separate works by author Charlotte Bronte. Her earlier novel, “Jane Eyre”, offered a characteristically Gothic interpretation, introducing the repulsive, feral madwoman in the attic. Some years later, Bronte painted a more enlightened picture of mental illness in her semi-autobiographical novel, “Villette”.
Here is a list: 
Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens (1837)

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (1847)
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte (1847)
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens (1850)
Vilette, Charlotte Bronte (1853)

Little Dorritt, Charles Dickens (1857)

Cassandra Florence Nightengale (1860)

Lady Audley’s Secret, Mary Braddon (1862)

He Knew He Was Right, Anthony Trollope (1869)

The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)


Follow-up Reading:

Books and articles on this subject can be found as follows:

Allan Beveridge and Edward Renvoiz

McCandless, P. (1981) Liberty and lunacy: The Victorians and wrongful confinement. In Madhouses, Mad doctors, and Madmen: The Social History of Psychiatry in the Victorian Era.

Lisa Appignanesi, Mad, Bad and Sad: A history of the mind doctors from 1800 to the present (Virago 2008)
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The woman writer and the nineteenth-century literary imagination (Yale University Press, 1979)
Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, madness and English culture 1830-1980 (Virago, 1985).