Neo-Victorian Madness: Rediagnosing Nineteenth-Century Mental Illness in Literature and Other Media (2020)

Apr 15, 2021 | Reviews

Neo-Victorian Madness: Rediagnosing Nineteenth-Century Mental Illness in Literature and Other Media (2020), ed. by Sarah E. Maier and Brenda Ayres.

Anne Reus

Neo-Victorian Madness begins by positing a fundamental continuity between the Victorians and us. “Victorian angst and mental illness” (9) caused by technological and social change, global expansion and changing moral and ethical frameworks continue seamlessly into modern life, in spite of our radically different framework for understanding mental health. Neo-Victorian engagements with the nineteenth century are therefore fundamentally corrective: they seek to untangle “the web of depression, addictions, insecurities, anxieties, neuroses, psychoses and other troubling behaviour and torment that has ensnared many a modern” (9). With a firm emphasis on the presentism of the Neo-Victorian, the volume therefore seeks to understand an ongoing mental-health crisis by revisiting the past.

As is to be expected, Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason loom large. Kate Faber Oestreich traces a preoccupation with Bertha’s addictions through three modern adaptations, foregrounding their shared condemnation of ‘irresponsible’ addict mothers: women’s struggle with addiction is read as insanity and punished by their communities. A similar ambivalence regarding female communities is central to Rachel M. Friars and Brenda Ayres’s exploration of the structural similarities of the madwoman and her nurse, “an ambiguous figure who is both powerful and powerless in the neo-Victorian madwoman narrative” (57). Confinement and silence oppress the nurse alongside her charge in male-controlled spaces and highlight the erosion of boundaries between them. While both of these chapters explore the transformation of the colonial scapegoat Bertha, Olivia Tjon-A-Meeuw offers a postcolonial reading of the madwoman that begins with Elizabeth Barrett Browning and extends to Caribbean plantations. Advancing a persuasive argument that madness is a locationally and situationally specific result of the violence of slavery, she shows that Laura Fish’s Strange Music revises colonial legacies like Bertha’s doubling of (sane) Jane to offer madness as a form of resistance.

As a popular genre, the Neo-Victorian speaks to (and for) a wide readership, and this collection makes a tentative attempt to widen the Neo-Victorian canon texts to include romantic historical fiction. Brenda Ayres shows that Mary Balogh’s Survivors’ Club novels make visible Regency trauma as a reparative project for a modern readership, be it from war or the marriage market (even if its treatment through love and marriage leaves much to wish for from a modern diagnostic perspective). Eckart Voigts likewise re-centres madness and its attendant unreliable narrators as a reader experience that consists of the discrepancy between the intentions, norms and expectations of narrator and reader—like madness, unreliability is temporally situated and context dependent. Literacy thus becomes a double-edged sword for his narrators: narrative control betrays the manipulativeness of the middle-class “unwoman,” lack of narrative sophistication exculpates a murderous maid. Marshall Needleman Armintor’s study of The Crimson Petal and the White offers a challenge for the volume as a whole. Positing contrasting aims for Neo-Victorian fiction—the emulation of form and content of the Victorian novel alongside a postmodern critique of its world—he asks, “[I]s the neo-Victorian too meta to explore madness in an ingenuous way?” (146). The reader is held at one remove by the overdetermination of Agnes’s illness as symptom of various “overlapping regimes of Victorian social opprobrium and control” (148) as well as an undiagnosed tumour; in contrast, the serial adaptation’s streamlined narrative and single point of view validate a diagnosis of sexual trauma.

The volume editors next trace how Victorian medical discourses defined women by their reproductive system: any mental imbalance can be retraced to the biological functions of the female body, a physical trauma and history of medical abuse they find reflected in Ripper Street. In a persuasive reading of Grace Marks as a queer narrative catalyst, Barbara Braid centres on Neo-Victorianism’s potential as queer and mad history. Unlike the feminist madwoman driven by anger or illusions of power, Braid’s queer one is a figure of resistance opposed to regimes of normality: she exposes the voyeuristic pleasure of doctors, husbands and contemporary readers alike, queering our enjoyment of Neo-Victorian fictions. Tim Posada shows how Penny Dreadful challenges the horror trope of the hysterical woman through Vanessa Yves, who embraces hysteria and the cultural condition of being a woman while male hysterics fail to live up to the Victorian ideal of self-composed masculinity. The BBC’s Sherlock, in contrast, is less successful, as John C. Murray argues. Reproducing nineteenth-century diagnostic labels, the series oversimplifies and glamourizes socio- and psychopathy in an attempt to subvert a simple good/evil dichotomy: although Moriarty’s behavioural instability and ungendered performance subvert character tropes, Sherlock’s sister Eurus is a relapse to Victorian definitions of female madness. Finally, Sarah E. Maier explores how individual difference turns into trauma in Neo-Victorian childhood narratives; yet also finds a reparative message in the protagonists’ ability to recreate their lives and selves through fictional narratives. The twelve chapters collected here cover a wide range of approaches to Neo-Victorian madness. The many wrongs of nineteenth-century medicine offer an obvious entry point for modern re-diagnoses, yet these are most productive when they leave a narrow catalogue of symptoms behind. The most promising engagements with Neo-Victorian madness are those that interrogate its narrative functions and textual strategies, not least because they tend to eschew the smug satisfaction of knowing more than the Victorians—we too might find ourselves falling prey to “myths about women’s sexuality that were disseminated as if they were scientific facts” (166-67). Disbelief at the convictions of “an early gynaecologist in England and not in Asia, the Middle East or Africa” (172) also highlights the fundamental necessity of “[u]ndisciplining Victorian studies” (Chatterjee et al.), postmodern allegiances of Neo-Victorianism notwithstanding. Given the diversity of the approaches, a brief conclusion would have been a welcome addition to the volume. Neo-Victorian madness appears to be a strictly gendered phenomenon, the copious expressions of female anger and victimization are barely matched by occasional appearances of male sociopaths, soldiers and hysterics. As it stands, the volume shows the limitations of diagnostic presentism but offers a good overview of the different shapes Neo-Victorian engagements with madness can take, a thorough exploration of Victorian mental-health-related medical discourses and some very strong individual contributions.