The Most Dreadful Visitation: Male Madness in Victorian Fiction

The Most Dreadful Visitation: Male Madness in Victorian Fiction

The Most Dreadful Visitation: Male Madness in Victorian Fiction

The Most Dreadful Visitation: Male Madness in Victorian Fiction


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.


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.

In part his horror at the sight of these mad people is inspired by the dreary, dirty, ill-ordered conditions in which they are kept. These inmates are people on whose minds has fallen 'the most dreadful visitation to which our nature is exposed', and they need and deserve a wholesome and stimulating environment if they are to be restored to full humanity. Madness for nineteenth-century writers was both an alien state of mind and something that could afflict 'our nature' at any time. Imaginatively, therefore, it offered opportunities to explore the extremities of human mental and emotional suffering, uniting the fascination of the strange and the abnormal with the familiarity of the known and the shared. Since madness denotes a dissonance between the individual and society, it provides a channel for the exploration of moral dilemmas, focusing on the issues of egoism and self-control. But since it also denotes individual suffering, moral judgement must be qualified by sympathy, respect and understanding. 'Madness' is a term more common in literary than in medical usage, but the conditions it describes are not simply literary conditions. Imaginative representations of madness are inevitably influenced by cultural conceptions of insanity, whether they are medical, juridical, philosophical, or a composite that has entered into popular currency. In this book I shall be looking at a variety of fictional texts which figure mad men. My main focus is on the way that madness functions in the texts and on what the representation of madness in men reveals about contemporary . . .

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