Wilkie Collins’s Monomaniacs in Basil, No Name and Man and Wife

by Helena Ifill

Monomania. This word has of late become a jest in the mouth of the public. But the public is unfortunately far from being well-informed on some things, and may perhaps laugh when it ought to be grave. (“Monomania” 177)

The term monomania, about which Chambers Edinburgh Journal is so concerned, became popular in Britain from the 1830s onwards as a means of describing a form of “partial insanity” in which a person was apparently insane in only one way.1 Insanity could take the form of an erroneous belief, a persistent impulse, or a recurring hallucination which was referred to as a “fixed” or “dominant idea”. As the psychiatrist J.C. Prichard explained:

This form of insanity is characterized by some particular illusion or erroneous conviction impressed upon the understanding, and giving rise to a partial aberration of judgement. The individual affected is rendered incapable of thinking correctly on subjects connected with the particular illusion, while in other respects he betrays no palpable disorder of mind. (26)

One of the reasons that Chambers felt monomania should be taken seriously was because it came to the forefront of public consciousness due to the trial of Daniel M’Naughton who, in 1843 (the year this article was published), assassinated the Prime Minister’s private secretary Edward Drummond.2 Although M’Naughton seemed rational, it was discovered that he had shown “symptoms of mental aberration” in recent years (“Assassination of Mr. Edward Drummond, Sir R. Peel’s Private Secretary” 43). M’Naughton insisted that “Tories” had done “everything in their power to harass and persecute” him, and that they wished “to murder” him; he was found not guilty due to insanity (ibid 41-42). This ruling led to a public outcry, including the publication of a hundred stanza poem by the pseudonymous Dry Nurse. One verse will serve as an example:

“No matter,” say the doctors, “that he knows
The difference which exists ’twixt wrong and right;
No matter, if the bullet as it goes
Through your sane carcase, chance to kill you quite;
No matter if he stops to blow his nose
Before he fires, to try and clear his sight;
Such trifles are no matter—for, alack!
The wretched man’s a Monomaniac!” (Monomania 3-4)

As this extract implies, the public were confused and angered by a condition in which a person could differentiate “’twixt wrong and right”, do wrong, and then escape punishment by being diagnosed as a monomaniac (in fact, M’Naughton spent the rest of his life incarcerated as a criminal lunatic in Bethlem Hospital, and later Broadmoor). The controversial case led to the development of the M’Naughton rules which were used as a standard measure of insanity for the rest of the century:

To establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that at the time of committing the act the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason from disease of the mind as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong. (Maudsley, Responsibility in Mental Disease 95)

Despite the M’Naughton rules, monomania continued to spark debate in medico-legal circles as people worried that it was “a modern resource to screen criminals from the law” which allowed them to be “preserved from punishment” by pleading insanity, or a way “to deprive a citizen of his liberty” by labelling him as “mad” (“On Monomania” 506-07). Nevertheless, the condition was popular with doctors as it was convenient for diagnosing a whole range of insane experiences: people who thought they were famous, persecuted (like M’Naughton), or inanimate objects could all be classified as monomaniacs. The best ways in which to categorise and subcategorise monomaniacs were debated at length in medical journals and text books and case studies identified kleptomaniacs, pyromaniacs, religious monomaniacs, demonomaniacs, and erotomaniacs, to name just a few (see, for example, Prichard 30-34).

Monomania was prominent in the public imagination well into the second half of the nineteenth century, long after it began to fall out of favour in medical circles.3 Popular journals offered snapshots of an array of monomanias:

The monomaniac sometimes fancies that his head is turned the wrong way. At one time he is a pump, and desires to have his arm worked up and down […] People have been known to fancy that they were glass vessels, liable to be broken with the slightest touch. Others have imagined themselves to be ducks, and have insisted upon squatting for hours at a time, hatching imaginary eggs. (“Monomaniacs” 110)

Whilst such examples of strange and wonderful delusions were prominent in popular articles about monomania, one particular meaning began to emerge as the most prevalent. The word became, as Jenny Bourne Taylor has observed, “a widely used term that could be stretched to mean almost any kind of irrational obsession” (47). In fact, the obsession did not have to be particularly irrational to be labelled monomania; it could refer to any interest, belief or character trait taken to extremes. This interpretation of the word was one which was particularly taken up by the popular press. The Sphinx, for instance, gave examples of “minor cases of monomania which meet us in society almost every day of our existence” which were the result of “the concentration of the mind and energies upon one particular subject to the exclusion of all others—in other words, the riding of one particular hobby to death” (“Monomaniacs” 110). “Commercial men deeply engrossed in business”, “spendthrifts and misers”, people with a large “organ of acquisitiveness” or with “inordinate vanity and self-love”, were all identified as “every day” monomaniacs (ibid. 110-11). The New Monthly Magazine satirically took this further, observing that “most of us are the victims of more than one monomania in the course of our lives” (Morgan 44, 45), which could include the “monomania of stealing umbrellas, or the still more offensive insanity of borrowing odd volumes without an idea of restoring or reading them” (ibid. 50). Such articles, even at their most humorous, contributed to the body of popular and medical literature which acknowledged that there was “no clear dividing line between sickness and health of mind” (“M.D. and M.A.D.” 511), often at the same time as they tried to make workable and useful demarcations between the two.4

Unsurprisingly, considering its prevalence in medical and popular discourse, monomania appears more or less explicitly in a range of nineteenth-century fictional works. Readings of famous characters such as Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff, Charles Dickens’s Miss Havisham, Bram Stoker’s Renfield, and Robert Browning’s homicidal obsessives (such as the narrator of “Porphyria’s Lover” (1836)) can all be informed by a consideration of monomania.5 Monomania is referenced in some of the most famous sensation novels, including Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) and Charles Reade’s Hard Cash (1863). Wilkie Collins’s fiction is not, therefore, unique in its featuring of monomania, but Collins returns to the figure of the monomaniac more frequently and with more variety than any of the authors named above. Yet very little has been written about his engagement with this form of insanity. Recently Laurence Talairach-Vielmas has given constructive readings of Collins’s male obsessives, and discussed how “monomania plays a central part” in Basil; A Story of Modern Life (1852), The Woman in White (1860), and “Mad Monkton” (1855), “encapsulating the characters’ obsessions and viewing them through a medical lens” (22). However, Talairach-Vielmas’s focus on male characters, on monomania as a medicalizing synonym for obsession, and on Collins’s pre-1860s fiction, together with the fact that this is just one small part of a larger argument about Collins’s recreation of the Gothic genre, means that the discussion remains rather limited.

Here, I also concentrate on three texts, Basil, No Name (1862) and Man and Wife (1870), but move beyond obsession into exploration of a wider variety of monomaniacal characters, including female, homicidal and delusional monomaniacs. By covering a larger chronological scope, I am also able to trace the development of monomania in Collins’s fiction, showing how his monomaniacs change as he moves towards the “Novel with a Purpose” which was such a dominant aspect of his later career, and of which Man and Wife is his first. In Basil monomania is primarily a way of legitimating a villain whose excessive drive for revenge can seem far-fetched. In No Name Collins provides a subtler, more compassionate exploration of monomania as he portrays a vibrant young woman who is turned into a scheming villainess by a family tragedy. Finally, with the spooky figure of Hester Dethridge, Collins again exploits the shock value of monomania but at the same time attempts to convey a message about unfair marriage laws and marital abuse. Reading Collins’s monomaniacs in this way reveals how his well-documented interest in psychopathology offered him new ways of engaging his readers with the important social issues to which he frequently returns in his fiction, such as Victorian marriage and inheritance laws.6) Monomania is in fact a crucial tool in Collins’s ongoing aim to expose and critique the abuses, hypocrisies and ills of Victorian society.

As the rest of this paper will demonstrate, Collins regularly employed three well-recognized traits of monomania: its association with obsession, as stated above; the partial nature of this form of insanity; and the presence of an internal struggle between the individual and his or her particular monomania. Its nature as a form of partial insanity meant that “delusions in monomania […] may remain silent, till discovered by some accidental outbreak, when demonstrations of a painful character frequently and unexpectedly occur” (Burgess 246). In 1851 The Lancet reported one such “painful” revelation: “a well-conducted servant girl, twenty-three years of age” who had “never showed any signs of mental aberration chopped off her left hand and thrust her arm into the fire” (“Religious Monomania; Self-mutilation” 456). The Lancet concludes that the “patient seems to be strictly mono-maniac, as she gives very apposite and satisfactory answers respecting her age, state of health, family, and various other circumstances” but, when questioned about her self-mutilation, “she invariably answers that God told her to do it” (ibid). Collins, as we shall see, makes the most of the dramatic possibilities afforded by this image of the monomaniac as a dangerous and unpredictable individual who could hide a growing insanity behind a façade of normality.

Descriptions of an all consuming obsession, or of a single hallucination or erroneous idea, fit well with the notion of monomania, but some forms of the condition were characterised by a division of the personality. The influential French physician who coined the term “monomania”, J. E. D. Esquirol, designated “instinctive monomania” as a case in which the patient

is drawn away from his accustomed course, to the commission of acts, to [sic] which neither reason nor sentiment determine, which conscience rebukes, and which the will no longer has the power to restrain. The acts are involuntary, instinctive, irresistible. (320)

One frequently cited case involved a German servant who confessed to her mistress that whenever she “undressed the little child which she nursed, she was struck with the whiteness of its skin, and experienced the most irresistible desire to tear it in pieces. She felt afraid that she could not resist the desire, and preferred to leave the house” (Prichard 385-86). Less morbid examples include a “gentleman” who “could not resist the tendency to appropriate what was not his own” and so obtained his priest’s permission to steal as long as he returned the item afterwards (“On Monomania” 517-18), and a young lady who “could not touch anything, especially money, lest something of value should adhere to her”, even though she knew that this was “absurd and ridiculous” (ibid. 514). In each case there is a division of the self, a struggle between the dominant idea which urges the sufferer to do wrong, and the “better” or “sane” part of the person which realises the impropriety of the insane impulse and attempts to restrain it.

In Collins’s novels, this self-division represents an internalisation of a conflict between the desires of the individual and social expectations or conventions. In non-fictional writing a monomania is unquestionably something undesirable to be suppressed or overcome; to suffer from monomania is to reveal a weak or perverted volition. In Collins’s fiction, monomania is still not socially acceptable; his monomaniacs do terrible things and are punished then rehabilitated or purged by the end of the novel. However, the circumstances which generate the monomania are shown to result from a sense of social injustice, and the monomaniacal urge becomes the part of the individual which refuses to accept his or her fate without a fight. Moreover, in contrast to many medical and non-fictional accounts of monomania, Collins gives the monomaniac a voice which invites understanding, if not approval, and the condition is no longer something that we can dismiss as entirely irrational, or unequivocally condemnable.

In Collins’s dedicatory letter to Basil he rather defensively asserts that he had “not thought it either politic or necessary, while adhering to realities, to adhere to every-day realities only” (4). However, Collins’s critics were unconvinced by his claims to realism. Charles Dickens tactfully suggested that “the probabilities here and there require a little more respect than you are disposed to shew [sic] them” (Dickens, 20 December, 1852, 823-24). The Westminster Review more scathingly argued that Basil was one of a “class” of novels which offered “scenes of fury and passion, such as, happily, real life seldom affords” (“Progress of Fiction” 372). The Westminster dismissed the novel’s villain, Robert Mannion, as “gifted with a fiend-like perseverance, which, happily for mankind, does not exist” and went on to explain that “man becomes weary, after a time, of one passion, or one pursuit, and the less principle he has to bind him to a straight course, the more does he diverge into fresh paths” (ibid. 373). Mannion’s hatred of Basil’s family is rooted in the fact that he holds Basil’s father responsible for his own father’s conviction and execution for forgery, and is consolidated when Basil marries the woman he intended to make his own mistress, Margaret. To take revenge, Mannion first consummates his illicit relationship with Margaret, then vows to persecute Basil by following him to the ends of the earth, destroying any social standing he may manage to achieve. The novel’s climax is a near parody of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).7 Mannion, already a “monster” psychologically, and now hideously disfigured from a confrontation with Basil, chases his prey to the “southern shore of Cornwall” (247) before shaking a threatening fist from the edge of a cliff, losing his balance, and plunging to his death. Collins attempts to explain Mannion’s bizarre behaviour by having him diagnosed as a “dangerous monomaniac” whilst he is in hospital after his altercation with Basil (223). This accounts for Mannion’s “fiend-like perseverance”; his condition makes him incapable of becoming “weary” of the fixed idea which has taken over his consciousness. By 1852 “monomania” had passed into popular usage but (although its popularity with professionals was waning) remained a recognised medical condition. Here, Collins uses the term’s associations with obsession and the medical authority of a reliable doctor figure to give a veneer of realism to an improbable story.8 Collins is attempting to persuade his readers (apparently unsuccessfully in the case of Dickens and the Westminster) that he is indeed “adhering to realities” (4).

A closer reading of Mannion shows that Collins did take pains to accurately paint him as a monomaniac, and not simply because Mannion is obsessed with Basil.9 As mentioned above, monomania was not only a synonym for obsession. Esquirol explained that in instances of what he termed “intellectual monomania” sufferers experienced one particular delusion which constituted the partial insanity:

the intellectual disorder is confined to a single object, or a limited number of objects. The patients seize upon a false principle, which they pursue without deviating from logical reasonings, and from which they deduce legitimate consequences, which modify their affections, and the acts of their will. Aside from this partial delirium, they think, reason and act, like other men. Illusions, hallucinations, vicious associations of ideas, false and strange convictions, are at the basis of this delirium. (320)

Mannion’s own epistolary account of the history of his hatred for Basil reveals how his desire for revenge develops into a monomaniacal “false principle”, triggered by those times that Basil unknowingly thwarts Mannion’s plans. When Mannion receives the news that Basil has married Margaret whilst Mannion is out of the country on business, he describes feeling “the first thought of vengeance […] move like a new life within me” (193, emphasis added), as though it is somehow, almost parasitically, separate from himself. The main precipitating event is when Basil discovers Mannion’s affair with Margaret, and then physically overpowers him, flinging him “face downwards” onto a road “newly mended with granite” and rendering him “insensible” (132). It is after this trauma that Mannion really begins to suffer from a “false and strange conviction”:

Lying in this place at night, […] prophecies of dread things to come between us, trouble my spirit in dreams. At those times, I know, and shudder in knowing, that there is something besides the motive of retaliation, something less earthly and apparent than that, which urges me horribly and supernaturally to link myself to you for life; which makes me feel as the bearer of a curse that shall follow you; as the instrument of a fatality pronounced against you long ere we met—a fatality beginning before our fathers were parted by the hangman; perpetuating itself in you and me; ending who shall say how, or when? (200-201)

The force of this letter comes from Mannion’s expressing of his monomaniacal belief that he has gained special knowledge of his own role in a grand cosmic scheme.

Mannion’s letter is also important as it describes the conditions of his early life which led to the development of his monomania. The fact that Mannion’s mother was so traumatised by her husband’s execution that she “died in a public mad-house” (183) is a telling sign. Insanity was not always considered hereditary in the Victorian period, but it was frequently accepted that a “constitutional predisposition” must exist, as not all people exposed to similar trying circumstances were in danger of losing their reason (Prichard, 157). Moreover, although (unlike in No Name and Man and Wife) social injustice is not directly responsible for Mannion’s monomania, the prejudice and exclusion that he experiences after his father’s execution, when the gallows becomes an “immoveable obstacle between me and fortune, between me and station, between me and my fellow-men” (184) has primed him to hate Basil with an intensity which drives him towards insanity.

Monomania is, like his mutilated face, a manifestation of Mannion’s pre-existing immorality, but this immorality is a result of his belief that he has never been given a fair chance in life and a corresponding disdain for social conventions and principles. Mannion’s delusion that he is an “instrument” of fate suggests that he is not entirely in control of his own behaviour; whereas previously he chose to act out his revenge, he is now compelled to do so. Yet it also gives him a feeling of infallibility, allowing him to make sense of the suffering he has endured in his life, and justifies the hatred he feels towards Basil. Consequently, rather than resisting his monomania he is thrilled by it and describes it in terms which present it in the fearfully pleasurable light of a sublime experience: “I cannot leave you if I would. The horrible joy of hunting you through the world, leaps in my blood like fire!” (257, emphasis added) Mannion’s function in the novel is primarily to terrorize Basil (through whose fearful and disapproving eyes we predominantly view him); he is a melodramatic villain whose actions are both extreme and bizarre.

Nevertheless, the emotions that motivate Mannion are entirely recognizable: anger, jealousy, bitterness, a sense of humiliation and exclusion. In the two later novels to be discussed shortly Collins makes more of this, actually trying to generate sympathy, or at least pity, for his monomaniacs. Here, however, there is an underlying sense that Mannion is “too morbidly sensitive” about his status as a forger’s son (187). He recoils from what he sees as the “over-acted sympathy” (183) of others, and perceives “open insult, or humiliating compassion, or forced forbearance, in the look and manner of every man” (184). It is unclear from his highly subjective letter how much the awareness of the “gallows-mark” (185) is one which he, rather than those around him, is primarily responsible for maintaining. The mental physiologist William Benjamin Carpenter argued that “the tendency to brood upon a particular class of ideas and on the feelings connected with them, gives them, if this tendency be habitually yielded to, an increasing dominance,—so that they at last take full possession of the mind, overmaster the will, and consequently direct the conduct” (Principles of Mental Physiology 671-72). Mannion has spent years brooding upon his hard lot in life, indulging his sense of injury, and Basil’s unintentional disruption of his plans to finally “know happiness” in the form of Margaret (189) is the trigger needed to produce a full-blown monomania.

This tendency to “brood” is something which Mannion shares with Collins’s other monomaniacs. He feels that he has been denied “the pleasant draughts which other men drink to sweeten existence” (189) and by the end of the novel this has developed into an unshakeable belief that he is providentially chosen to avenge his own misfortune by harming the father and son who he is convinced have ruined his life. Whilst he is not a particularly likeable character, we can see that his monomania has developed as a response to a perceived wrong and sense of injury. This is something that Collins develops in his depiction of No Name’sMagdalen Vanstone, who is disinherited after the death of her parents leads to the revelation that their marriage was not legal.

Unlike Mannion, Magdalen is not explicitly labelled a monomaniac in the novel. Nevertheless, the use of phrases such as “dominant idea” (544) and the way in which Magdalen’s behaviour and mental processes are described means that she is invested with the obsessive attributes associated with monomania. In his preface Collins claims that he intended to depict “the struggle of a human creature, under those opposing influences of Good and Evil, which we have all felt, which we have all known” (xxvii), but in sensational form (and as in the case of Basil) the circumstances Magdalen finds herself in, and her responses to them, take her beyond the likely experience of No Name’sgeneral readership. Even so, as with Mannion, Magdalen’s monomania is the result of recognizable emotions: grief at the death of her parents; shock at the discovery that she and her sister are illegitimate; anger at the fact that their fortune is passed on to Michael Vanstone, the next legally-recognized member of the family.

Both Mannion and Magdalen are obsessive, but whereas with Mannion it is the presence of a delusion that marks him out as a monomaniac, in No Name it is the conflict between Magdalen’s “better” self and her fixed idea which most clearly reflects non-fictional depictions of monomaniacs. It is partly because of this difference that, whilst Mannion remains generally unsympathetic, Magdalen is the heroine of the novel, even as she commits morally questionable acts. Whereas Mannion’s desires, dominant idea and morality coincide (he hates Basil, wants revenge upon him, and cares nothing about the moral consequences), Magdalen wants to regain her inheritance and is monomaniacally determined to win it, but despises the dishonest lengths she must go to in order to be victorious.10 No Name acknowledges the vulnerable and precarious nature of self-control, and the difficulty of assigning responsibility and blame; Magdalen is clearly aware of the impropriety and immorality of what she is doing, but the extent to which she is unable, or unwilling, to stop herself remains uncertain.

Perhaps the most powerful scene which depicts Magdalen’s inner struggle occurs shortly before her marriage to Noel Vanstone. Magdalen steps outside in order to contemplate her situation:

By slow degrees, her mind recovered its balance, and she looked her position unflinchingly in the face. The vain hope that accident might defeat the very end for which, of her own free will, she had ceaselessly plotted and toiled, vanished and left her; self-dissipated in its own weakness. She knew the true alternative, and faced it. On one side, was the revolting ordeal of the marriage – on the other, the abandonment of her purpose. Was it too late to choose between the sacrifice of the purpose, and the sacrifice of herself? Yes! too late. The backward path had closed behind her. Time that no wish could change, Time that no prayers could recall, had made her purpose a part of herself: once she had governed it; now it governed her. The more she shrank, the harder she struggled, the more mercilessly it drove her on. No other feeling in her was strong enough to master it – not even the horror that was maddening her; the horror of her marriage. (396)

Magdalen is fighting to resist her own “purpose”, which has come to govern her. Neither the positive feeling of “hope” nor the negative feeling of “horror” is strong enough to overcome her dominant idea. It is after this scene that Magdalen considers suicide; she is living in a world of exaggeration in which only that most drastic of measures is a possible alternative to the achieving of her goal. Magdalen is reasoning clearly and correctly and she sees her own position “unflinchingly”, yet nothing is strong enough to dislodge her dominant idea.

The goal itself is quite specific, as Magdalen explains when she visits Noel Vanstone disguised as her ex-governess Miss Garth. She asserts that even if she was “married and rich with millions to-morrow” and could save her sister from being forced to work as a governess, “nothing would induce her to leave [Noel Vanstone] in possession of the inheritance which her father meant his children to have” (236). As she denounces the law that has rendered her illegitimate Magdalen’s tone is reminiscent of Mannion’s melodramatic description of his own monomaniacal delusion and gives a similar (although less explicit) sense that she is not entirely in control of her own behaviour:

It is your law—not hers. She only knows it as the instrument of a vile oppression, an insufferable wrong. The sense of that wrong haunts her, like a possession of the devil. The resolution to right that wrong burns in her like fire. (236)

Collins invites an ambivalent reading of Magdalen’s goal. She speaks sincerely of achieving justice but her aim is ultimately financial gain, and the imagery describing the urge which prompts her to act is clearly destructive. Moreover, there is a definite sense of social injustice at work in this novel. Numerous characters and the narrator criticise the “cruel law” which leaves Magdalen and Norah “helpless” and we are left in no doubt that if the law were more fitting to a “merciful and Christian” country then she would not be driven to act in such a desperate manner (109-10). Additionally, whilst her disinheritance is evidently the triggering factor of her monomania, Collins also includes hints in the narrative which suggest why she responds to her situation in the way she does (in a very different way to her sister, who accepts her lot passively). Although the unfairness of her situation is more objectively expressed than in the case of Mannion, Magdalen is not purely a victim of society to the extent that Hester Dethridge (discussed presently) is. Her inherent personality and upbringing are, it is implied, crucial in predisposing her towards insanity.

The initial descriptions of Magdalen suggest that her emotions are intense and not easily restrained; she has “large, electric, light-grey eyes” that “were hardly ever in repose; all varieties of expression followed each other over the plastic, ever-changing face, with a giddy rapidity which left sober analysis far behind in the race” (8). Whilst this indicates her “overflowing physical health” (9), the incessant movement also hints at emotional or mental instability. Andrew Mangham observes that the vitality of Magdalen implies “over-abundant sexual energies”, and that this “is accompanied by more menacing ideas of excess” (184). Magdalen feels things more deeply than other women, even something as simple as having her hair brushed:

The girl’s fervid temperament intensified the essentially feminine pleasure that most women feel in the passage of the comb through their hair, to a luxury of sensation which absorbed her in enjoyment, so serenely self-demonstrative, so drowsily deep, that it did irresistibly suggest a pet cat’s enjoyment under a caressing hand. (40)

Already in a state of near-perpetual exuberance, Magdalen hungers after any event that will thrill her nerves and merely expressing her craving for physical and emotional stimuli seems to exhilarate her:

I want to go to another concert—or a play, if you like—or a ball, if you prefer it—or, anything else in the way of amusement that puts me into a new dress, and plunges me into a crowd of people, and illuminates me with plenty of light, and sets me in a tingle of excitement all over, from head to foot. (10)

This is not a personality naturally disposed towards self-restraint.

The development and assertion of the will was seen by many as crucial to both ensuring good behaviour and maintaining sanity. Carpenter (one of the foremost theorisers concerning the nature and development of willpower) argued that while the will could not prevent the occurrence of inappropriate or undesirable thoughts and feelings

it is the acceptance of them by the permission of the will, that makes them Voluntary, and brings them within the sphere of moral action; whilst it is the intentional direction of the attention to them, which gives them their Volitional character, and makes the ego fully responsible for them. (“Physiology of the Will” 214)

Carpenter speculated that a person may be capable of exercising volition under normal circumstances but that, if he or she were not in the habit of asserting his or her willpower, then it may not be strong enough to face a sudden shocking event. Carpenter argued that if a girl drowned herself after a lovers’ quarrel, or a maid killed a child in a temper, she may be temporarily insane, but would be “morally responsible for that crime, in so far as she has habitually neglected to control the wayward feelings whose strong excitement has compelled her to its commission” (ibid. 216). Although Magdalen eventually fights her fixed idea, she is described as having initially pursued her goal “of her own free will”, her purpose had initially been “governed” by her, rather than vice versa (396). Read in the light of Carpenter’s theories, Magdalen has, it would appear, brought this situation upon herself, abandoning herself to the emotions that subsequently overtake her. Pykett similarly argues that Collins shows how “the disaster which befalls the Vanstone sisters is the result of an unjust law” but that “the novel’s focusing on Magdalen’s excessive emotions and her scheming also has the effect of transferring the reader’s attention and perhaps also the blame […] onto her perverse femininity and her obsessive desire for revenge and restitution” (23-24). However, when considering “blame”, it may also be asked why Magdalen’s willpower is so uncultivated.

Physicians such as Prichard placed great emphasis on a lack of early discipline in pinpointing reasons for insanity:

By too great indulgence and a want of moral discipline, the passions acquire greater power, and a character is formed subject to caprice and to violent emotions: a predisposition to insanity is thus laid in the temper and moral affections of the individual. (Prichard 172)

Carpenter also argued that that the willpower should be trained from infancy because “those early habits of thought and feeling, which exert an enormous influence over our whole subsequent mental life, are formed for us rather than by us” (“Physiology of the Will” 205). This is particularly relevant to Magdalen’s situation. The description of her home life and behaviour before the death of her parents reveals a loving but overly indulgent and undisciplined environment. For example, at one point Magdalen wants to perform in a play and finds it easy to convince her father:

“Say yes,” she pleaded, nestling softly up to her father, and pressing her lips with a fond gentleness to his ear, as she whispered the next words. “Say Yes—and I’ll be a good girl for the rest of my life.”

“A good girl?” repeated Mr Vanstone—“A mad girl, I think you must mean.” (33)

Carpenter asserted that “a great deal of what is commonly termed wilfulness is in reality just the contrary of will-fullness; being the direct result of the want of volitional control over the automatic operation of the brain” (“Physiology of the Will”, 206) and this seems particularly pertinent here. Mr Vanstone’s constant lenience allows the naturally excitable Magdalen to follow her every whim without forethought or deliberation and fails to prepare her for the disaster to come, making his words both prophetic and causal. Despite the remonstrations of Miss Garth and Mrs Vanstone, Magdalen’s father is unconcerned about his daughter’s high spirits: “she’s an unbroken filly. Let her caper and kick in the paddock to her heart’s content. Time enough to break her to harness, when she gets a little older” (11). Obviously these words are ill-fated as the death of her parents means that Magdalen has no opportunity to be “broken to harness”.

Early on in the novel, Collins’s narrator questions whether individuals have “inbred forces of Good and Evil” which cannot be altered intrinsically (116), the answer implicitly given throughout the rest of the novel is “yes, but…” Magdalen’s struggle is repeatedly presented as her “inborn nobility” fighting against her “perverted nature” (236); she may be inherently good, but the fact that her “nature” has been “perverted” on another, more immediate, level suggests the ease with which potentially “good” people can fall victim, unawares, to both circumstance and their own lesser natures. Although Collins aimed to make Magdalen’s “a pathetic character even in its perversity and its error” (xxvii), some Victorian reviewers (as with Basil) refused to be won over. H.F. Chorley, for example, was insensitive to the fact that Magdalen was following a “strong desire to right a cruel injustice” (10). Whereas Collins suggests there must be “inborn nobility” within Magdalen because she is able to do the right thing in the end, Chorley reverses this and asserts that there must be

coarseness, as well as meanness, in one capable of such actions and expedients as these […] her persistence in her evil purpose can only be explained by admitting that there existed in the heroine’s character hard and (we repeat) coarse elements, which deprive her of our sympathy. (11)

Ultimately, Magdalen’s “inborn nobility” is victorious. After dropping down the social ladder and paying what Margaret Oliphant felt was “the cheap cost of a fever” (170), Magdalen is humbled to the point where she can stop being selfishly, monomaniacally wilful and begin to direct her willpower in a morally acceptable direction:

Good and Evil struggled once more which should win her […] All the higher impulses of her nature, which had never, from first to last, let her err with impunity – which had tortured her, before her marriage and after it, with the remorse that no woman inherently heartless and inherently wicked can feel – all the nobler elements in her character gathered their forces for the crowning struggle […] she had victoriously trampled down all little jealousies and all mean regrets; she could say in her heart of hearts, “Norah has deserved it!” (598, emphasis added)

There is no question here that Magdalen was driven to do the wrong thing in trying to win back her inheritance through guile. Her monomania is “Evil”, the “higher impulses of her nature” are “Good”, she is not “inherently heartless” or “wicked”, her insanity is temporary, as well as partial.

And yet, although the defeating of the monomania is clearly a victory, the reader may well be pleased to see the fortune returned to the Vanstone sisters, and have enjoyed the machinations of Magdalen and her lively co-conspirator, Captain Wragge, against the “inborn cowardice” and “inborn cunning” of the miserly Noel Vanstone (348). The monomania is born of injustice and disappears at the reinstatement of justice. Moreover, as Hughes astutely observes, “Magdalen gets exactly what she wants” (152). Not only has the fortune has been returned to the family, but Magdalen is temporarily its recipient due to the secret trust. Whilst her destroying the trust is described as the “last sacrifice of the old perversity and the old pride” (607), it is also something of an empty gesture as her aim was to have the fortune restored regardless of how it was done. Magdalen’s dominant idea has in fact been satisfied and we as readers can also feel satisfied that the fortune finally ends up with the sisters, however uncomfortable we may feel about how it got there.

In Basil, Mannion’s monomania stems from his own sense of injustice as he struggled with the prejudices of society following the execution of his father. However (partly because of Basil’s narrative perspective) we are never entirely clear how much of this may be due to Mannion’s over-sensitive nature. In No Name, Magdalen’s monomania may be triggered by the shock of her parents’ death, but the form which the monomania takes is a result of the “cruel law” which leaves her and Norah nameless. However, Collins does not make a sustained attack on social injustice throughout the novel. This changes with Man and Wife, his contribution to the genre of “Novels with a Purpose”, in which the author wrote

not because he or she felt inspired to tell a story, but because certain meditations, or convictions, or doubts, on some subject connected with human society, seemed to find convenient and emphatic expression through the medium of a work of fiction. (McCarthy 29)

Collins’s preface declares that he intended the novel to address social grievances explicitly and “afford what help it may towards hastening the reform of certain abuses which have been too long suffered to exist among us unchecked” (Man and Wife, 5). Man and Wife’s main purpose is to censure the “scandalous condition of the Marriage Laws of the United Kingdom” (ibid.). Collins aims to show the harmful impact of these legal and social conditions. Most relevant to this paper is his targeting of the fact that (until shortly before the novel was published) the English marriage laws denied a wife control over her own finances.

Hester Dethridge is driven to despair by years of physical and emotional abuse, and her inability to keep her own earnings or obtain a divorce from her alcoholic husband. Hester premeditates the murder of her husband, but after successfully completing the act rapidly loses control of her sanity. Apparently dumb during the course of the novel due to a blow from her husband, her written confession eventually reveals that, at the prompting of a vision, she ceased speaking as an act of penance for her husband’s murder (603). Shortly after her vow of silence Hester begins to see an “Appearance”, which she describes as “the vision of MY OWN SELF—repeated as if I was standing before a glass” (605), and which instructs her to kill innocent people. Here Collins is drawing for dramatic effect on a medical condition known as instinctive monomania, homicidal madness or homicidal monomania, in which the patient was driven to act in a violent, often murderous manner, entirely against his or her will, and despite any attempt to restrain his or her own behaviour. Prichard described “a contest in the mind of the individual between the instinctive desire which constitutes the whole manifestation of disease, and the judgement of the understanding still unaffected and struggling against it” (385). Hallucinations such as Hester experiences were also common as an article in The Lancet explains: “hallucinations […] frequently afford a motive for this wish to kill. The patient is unceasingly pursued by hideous spectres, by indescribable sights, by demoniac voices, or angelic missionaries, ever urging, forcing, persuading him to homicide.” (Andral 578)

Like Robert Mannion and Magdalen Vanstone, Hester appears sane (albeit a little odd) to the casual observer and seems a “steady, trustworthy woman” (113). Unlike the other two, however, the form that her monomaniacal delusion takes is far less clearly linked to her former suffering, and this fits with Victorian descriptions of homicidal monomania where the sufferer would suddenly behave in a manner entirely out of the ordinary. Medical writers often chose for their case studies shocking instances in which people were driven to harm the innocent, and even those they loved. Maudsley, for example, gives an example of an elderly woman who, like Hester, displays great strength when undergoing a sudden compulsion towards strangulation, although in this case the target is her own daughter (“Practical Observations on Insanity of Feeling and of Action” 679). Reports of such cases repeatedly emphasise the “irresistible power” of “a blind impulse without reason” (Prichard 388).

Hester describes similar overwhelming sensations such as those given above. At one point her vision instructs her to strangle a young child: “I can only describe the overpowering strength of the temptation that tried me in one way. It was like tearing the life out of me, to tear myself from killing the boy” (606). Like the German servant discussed at the beginning of this article, Hester initially resists her urge until she begins to see her apparition repeatedly when in proximity to the villain, Geoffrey Delamayn. She eventually succumbs to her impulse and in a “homicidal frency [sic]” strangles Geoffrey (636). This is one of her functions in the novel and gives some purpose to her seemingly random hallucination; by insanely despatching Geoffrey, Hester enacts the violent revenge which Anne Sylvester, as the noble-hearted heroine (and also a victim of unfair marriage laws), cannot. Now a murderer twice over, Hester’s monomania deteriorates into mania and she spends the remainder of her days in an asylum. Whilst Collins’s narrative does not encourage his readers to like Hester in the same way that it encourages them to root for the middle-class Magdalen, she is a pitiful character who is driven to commit violent acts through the injustices of society. Moreover, the monomaniacal act which precipitates her full mental deterioration can be seen as a symbolic victory at least; rather than perpetuating the abuse that she has suffered by killing the small boy or other innocents, she destroys the man who is responsible for taking advantage of the unjust marriage laws and saves Anne. Moreover, whilst the text does not require us to condone murder (premeditated or otherwise), neither Hester’s husband nor Geoffrey cause the reader any sorrow by their passing. Here Collins takes his depiction of monomania to extremes to show the devastating effects of marital abuse: Hester is more violent, more at odds with her dominant idea, and less redeemable than either Magdalen or Mannion.

With both Mannion and Magdalen it is shown that whilst a triggering event may have resulted in their monomania, there were circumstances, both inherent and environmental, which predisposed them to the condition. Whilst the murder of her husband leads to Hester’s monomaniacal hallucination and an act of murder which she cannot control, despite her knowledge that it is wrong, it is important to note that the murder of her husband is premeditated. However, her detailed description of his treatment of her, of the numerous rejections of her cries for help, and of her sense of powerlessness not only prevent the reader from judging her too harshly, they suggest that her mental deterioration began long before she actually committed the murder. By the time the idea of how to commit the crime has come to her, her mental state is showing traces of monomania.  Hester describes how she attempts to leave the scene of her intended crime, but her wanderings through the city merely bring her back to her own house: “the house held me chained to it, like a dog to his kennel. I couldn’t keep away from it” (601). Hester’s life experiences have left her a hopeless victim to her own darker nature and her total mental deterioration at the end of the novel is less a villain’s fate and more that of a tragic victim.

For Collins, monomania was a means of explaining the kind of behaviour which fans of sensation fiction loved, but which its critics dismissed as unrealistic. It was also, however, a way of exploring the individual’s relationship to society. In all three cases of monomania we can identify a sense of injustice and helplessness which leads the characters to act in ways which are not dictated by their conscious selves. In the case of both Magdalen and Hester we can clearly see the struggle of a better nature which fights against the monomaniacal urge and wants to place the character back within socially acceptable bounds. Yet whilst the overcoming of the monomania is treated as a victory (Magdalen) or its ultimate overpowering of the individual as a failure (Hester), the reader is invited to understand the underlying reason for the dominant idea and even see monomania as a means of righting wrongs which normal social channels cannot address.

Works Cited

Andral, M. “Lectures on Medical Pathology.” Lancet 1 (1832-33): 577-81.

Anon. “Assassination of Mr. Edward Drummond, Sir R. Peel’s Private Secretary.” Court and Lady’s Magazine, Monthly Critic and Museum June 1843: 39-43. British Periodicals Online. 14 August 2013.

—. “M.D. and M.A.D.” All the Year Round 22 February 1862: 510-13.

—. “Monomania.” Chambers Edinburgh Journal 24 June 1843: 177-78.

—. “Monomania. By Dry Nurse. Saunders and Otley.” Examiner 5 August 1843: 485.

—. “Monomaniacs.” Sphinx 8 April 1871: 110-11.

—. “On Monomania.” Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathology October 1856: 501-21.

—. “Religious Monomania; Self-mutilation.” Lancet 58.1472 (1851): 456.

—. “The Progress of Fiction as an Art.” Westminster Review (1853): 342-74.

Burgess, Joshua. “The Policy and Pathology of Insanity.” Lancet 58.1463 (1851): 246-47.

Carpenter, William B. Principles of Mental Physiology. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1874.

—. “The Physiology of the Will.” Contemporary Review 17 (1871): 192-217.

Chorley, H.F. “No Name.” Athenaeum 3 January 1863: 10-11.

Collins, Wilkie. Basil. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

—. No Name. London: Penguin, 2004.

—. Man and Wife. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Dickens, Charles. The Letters of Charles Dickens. Ed. Graham Storey and Others. Vol. 6. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965-99. 11 vols.

[Dry Nurse]. Monomania. London: Saunders and Otley, 1843.

Esquirol, E. Mental Maladies: A Treatise on Insanity. Trans. E.K. Hunt. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1845.

Hughes, Winifred. The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Lepoutre, Thomas. “‘De la non-existence de la monomanie’, by Jean-Pierre Falret (1854): Introduction and Translation (Part 1).” History of Psychiatry 23.3 (2012): 356-70.

Maddyn, D.O. “Basil: A Story of Modern Life.” Athenaeum 4 December 1852: 1322-23.

Mangham, Andrew. Violent Women and Sensation Fiction: Crime, Medicine and Victorian Popular Culture. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Maudsley, Henry. “Practical Observations on Insanity of Feeling and of Action.” Lancet 23 June 1866: 679-80.

—. Responsibility in Mental Disease. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1874.

McCarthy, Justin. “Novels with a Purpose.” Westminster Review 82 (1864): 24-49.

Morgan, T.C. “Monomaniacs and Monomania.” New Monthly Magazine and Humorist May 1843: 43-51.

Oliphant, Margaret. “Novels.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine August 1863: 168-83.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart”. The Complete Stories. London: Everyman, 1992. 657-661.

Prichard, James Cowles. A Treatise on Insanity and Other Disorders Affecting the Mind. London: Sherwood, Gilbert, and Piper, 1835.

Pykett, Lyn. The Sensation Novel: From ‘The Woman in White’ to ‘The Moonstone’. Plymouth: Northcote House, 1994.

Talairach-Vielmas, Laurence. Wilkie Collins, Medicine and the Gothic. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009.

Taylor, Jenny Bourne. In the Secret Theatre of Home: Wilkie Collins, Sensation Narrative, & Nineteenth-Century Psychology. Routledge, 1998.

Wagner, Tamara S. “Sensationalizing Victorian Suburbia.” Victorian Sensations: Essays on a Scandalous Genre. Ed. Kimberly Harrison and Richard Fantina. Ohio State University Press, 2006.


  1. This was the common definition of the condition, but some physicians insisted that, although a patient may seem insane in a partial way, “on careful inquiry it will be found that his mind is in many respects in a different condition from that of perfect health” (Prichard 28). []
  2. Various spellings were used in Victorian reports of the case, including McNaughton, McNaughten, M’Naghton and Macnaughton. []
  3. French physicians (particularly J.E.D. Esquirol) had led the way in developing theories of monomania and were also the first to question its nosological and diagnostic usefulness. Jean-Pierre Falret’s 1854 text, “De la non-existence de la monomania” marked “the beginning of the decline of monomanias” (Lepoutre 356). []
  4. Even Dry Nurse’s claim that he “wrote because he could not help it” was seen by The Examiner as proof that “the book” was just “another form of the disease” (“Monomania. By Dry Nurse. Saunders and Otley” 485). []
  5. Other notorious monomaniacs (or alleged monomaniacs) include Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, Melville’s Captain Ahab, and Edgar Allan Poe’s “rational” lunatics, such as the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) who “healthily” and “calmly” explains his murder of an old man (Poe 657). []
  6. Bourne-Taylor’s In the Secret Theatre of Home (1998) remains the most thorough and well-known exploration of Collins’s engagement with Victorian theories of psychology and insanity, but numerous critics have returned to these topics more recently, including Talairach-Vielmas in Wilkie Collins and the Gothic (2009) and Andrew Mangham in Violent Women and Sensation Fiction (2009 []
  7. Talairach-Vielmas draws out many of the parallels between the two texts during her discussion of Basil (18-39). []
  8. Collins rarely depicted medical authority as so dependable; the failure of the medical authorities to recognise the difference between Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick in The Woman in White, for example, casts doubt upon the diagnoses of “mad doctors”. []
  9. This discussion deliberately goes beyond an alignment of monomania with obsession, but a number of critics have fruitfully written about Basil as a monomaniac because of his obsessive pursuit of Margaret, the linen-draper’s daughter and equally obsessive fear of Mannion (see Talairach-Vielmas, 22-39; Bourne Taylor 71-97; Wagner 206). This is a perfectly valid reading; whilst Mannion is the only explicitly diagnosed monomaniac in the novel, the whole text has (largely due to Basil’s intense narrative voice) an obsessive intensity redolent of monomania; the Athenaeum described it as having a “vicious atmosphere” which “weighs on us like a nightmare” (Maddyn 1323). []
  10. Reader sympathy is also generated by the detail with which Magdalen’s mental state is described. Winifred Hughes accurately observes that Magdalen’s moral struggle “never seriously affects the realm of action”, but her further assertion that the “real challenge is not to the heroine’s virtue, but to her intelligence and daring” does not sufficiently allow for the pages that Collins devotes to the inner conflict between different facets of Magdalen’s personality (145). In fact, as H.F. Chorley claimed in his (largely unfavourable) review of the novel, Magdalen is “virtually, the book” (10). []

Wilkie Collins’s Monomaniacs in Basil, No Name and Man and Wife by Helena Ifill
The Wilkie Collins Journal 12 (2013)

[ back to top | more articles ]

Print pagePDF pageEmail page