A Question of Identity: Women, Science, and Literature

By Marina Benjamin | Go to book overview

"Preaching to the Nerves": Psychological Disorder in Sensation Fiction

Sally Shuttleworth

The sensation fiction of the 1860s shared with the emerging science of Victorian psychiatry a preoccupation with psychological excess. Authors such as Mary Braddon, Wilkie Collins, and Mrs. Henry Wood focused their attention on forms of action and feeling that violated the rules of normative social behavior. The novels of the sensationalists (a loose term that embraced a wide variety of authors) were ones of high incident and passion: murderous impulses, throbbing sexuality, and dark secrets abound. For contemporary reviewers, the scandal of these works lay in their suggestion, and indeed often in their overt claims, that such forms of thought and behavior were not aberrant but rather mimetic of contemporary life. While Victorian psychiatry sought to demarcate the boundaries of sanity and insanity, of pathological and acceptable behavior, thus conferring the authority of science on bourgeois norms of respectability, the sensationalists seemed to privilege pathology, to locate normality not in the realm of psychological control and socially disciplined behavior, but rather in the sphere of turbulent excess.

Victorian fears that insanity was increasing at an alarming rate reached a crescendo in the late 1850s and 1860s. Sensation fiction was one of the more remarkable expressions of this fear: madness was a well-nigh obligatory element of any text. Threats of committal to an asylum furnished a dominant plot line, whose genesis and contemporary reregistration lay in the hands of psychiatric practice. Law, psychiatry, and sensation fiction had a strong intertextual relation in this period. Celebrated legal cases contesting the validity of psychiatric committals captured the popular imagination, focusing attention on the authoritative powers invested in the medical profession and the whole problematic issue of differentiating sane from insane behavior.

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