Love's Madness: Medicine, the Novel, and Female Insanity, 1800-1865

By Helen Small | Go to book overview

4
Love-Mad Women and Political Insurrection in Regency Fiction

IN 1828 George Man Burrows summed up the medical consensus of the previous four decades regarding the detrimental effects of insurrection on a nation's mental health:

Insanity bears always a striking relation to public events. Great political or civil revolutions in states are always productive of great enthusiasm in the people, and correspondent vicissitudes in their moral condition; and as all extremes in society are exciting causes, it will occur, that in proportion as the feelings are acted upon, so will insanity be more or less frequent.

Accordingly, Pinel has observed, how common mental alienation was in France, from the effects of the revolution, and Dr. Hallaran remarked the same, as the effect of the last rebellion in Ireland. Rush has given many examples of the influence of the American revolution on the human body and mind . . . These affections were so frequent among the royalists, that Rush gave them the specific name of 'Revolutiana,' and they bore the character of despondency; to the species of insanity pervading the revolutionists, that of 'Anarcbia,' bearing the opposite character.1

As Burrows indicates, early nineteenth-century medical interest in the concept of revolutionary insanity was largely inspired by Pinel's work with the insane after the French Revolution; but concern about the phenomenon was still strong almost forty years later. Burrows employs a language of 'exciting causes' loosely indebted to a humoral pathology supposedly superseded by the nineteenth century but still traceable in its language:2 a language of pathological 'influences', emphasizing the organism's susceptibility to suggestion. Revolution does not occur spontaneously within a human body, for Burrows, nor, by extension, does it occur spontaneously within the body politic: it is visited upon the system, 'exciting' it

____________________
1
George Mann Burrows, Commentaries on the Causes, Forms, Symptoms, and Treatment, Moral and Medical, of Insanity ( London, 1828), 20.
2
Janet Oppenheim, 'Sbattered Nerves': Doctors, Patients, and Depression in Victorian England ( New York, 1991), 88-9.

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