Borderlines of ‘Madness’ in 19th Century Fiction

Sarah Wise
Gosling Classroom
Saturday 10am-3.30pm

03 June: 10am-3.30pm
Members:  £50. Non-members: £60
Concessions: £10 (call the office 020 8340 3343)

We will explore various themes related to insanityand altered states of consciousness by examining a number of 19th-century works of fiction. Novelists and poets often had the greatest insights into the workings of the mind, and many Victorian psychiatrists cited works of fiction in their case studies. Among the authors we will cover are Charlotte Bronte, Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, Gogol, Herman Melville and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

What is the course about?
To explore representations of extreme mental states in 19th-century fiction. All diagnoses were hotly contested, and among the psychological phenomena we will examine are hysteria, paranoia, alcoholism, moral insanity(ie psychopathy), learning difficulties and post-natal depression. We will also examine the phenomenon of the Victorian asylum.

Each of the authors had a huge insight into such states, and constructed impressive and thoughtful works of art to explore these often distressing conditions and the impacts on those who suffered them:

The Fall of the House of Usher (1839). Poe’s short story contains a range of psychological phenomena. They include:  morbidity, neurosis/hysteria, heredity, possibly also venereal disease.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847).  We will concentrate on: ‘moral insanity’, alcoholism, serious delusional disorder/‘schizophrenia’, the menstrual cycle, home-incarcerated ‘lunatics’.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1860). Wrongful or malicious asylum certification. Learning difficulties.


The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892). Gilman’s short story/novella covers: post-natal psychosis,  the medicalisation of femininity, the late 19th-century diagnosis ‘neurasthenia’.

Bartleby The Scrivener by Herman Melville (1853):  ‘monomania’, autism,  work-related anxiety,  the ‘crisis’ of masculinity.

The Diary of A Madman by Nikolai Gogol (1834); paranoia, delusions of grandeur.

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins (1934). The plight of the learning disabled, legal measures to protect those deemed incapable of caring for themselves, the passing of the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act.

Most texts are available to download for free since they are out of copyright. If you prefer reading paper copies, most of the works can be purchased relatively inexpensively or borrowed from a library.