BBC Radio 4 has an excellent programme on the depiction of the ‘madwoman in the attic’ in Victorian literature and how it reflects ideas about mental disturbance and femininity of the time.
Unfortunately, the programme finishes on the rather clich√©d interpretation that the novels demonstrate how women who didn’t conform ended up being branded mad and locked up – essentially, madness as a form of female repression.
This is the classic feminist criticism of historical ideas about madness and despite there being some truth to it, it is only supportable by ignoring the other side of the coin – the traditional interplay between insanity and masculinity.
Feminist writer Elaine Showalter makes exactly this point with regards to ‘hysteria’ in her book Histories but you can read an excellent summary of her approach in a chapter for the book Hysteria Beyond Freud where she tracks how the feminist critique originated and how it has been sustained by a limited focus on female issues.
Although male hysteria has been documented since the seventeenth century, feminist critics have ignored its clinical manifestations, writing as though “hysterical questions” about sexual identity are only women’s questions. In order to get a fuller perspective on the issues of sexual difference and identity in the history of hysteria, however, we need to add the category of gender to the feminist analytic repertoire. The term “gender” refers to the social relations between the sexes, and the social construction of sexual roles. It stresses the relational aspects of masculinity and femininity as concepts defined in terms of each other, and it engages with other analytical categories of difference and power, such as race and class. Rather than seeking to repair the historical record by adding women’s experiences and perceptions, gender theory challenges basic disciplinary paradigms and questions the fundamental assumptions of the field.
When we look at hysteria through the lens of gender, new feminist questions begin to emerge. Instead of tracing the history of hysteria as a female disorder, produced by misogyny and changing views of femininity, we can begin to see the linked attitudes toward masculinity that influenced both diagnosis and the behavior of male physicians. Conversely, by applying feminist methods and insights to the symptoms, therapies, and texts of male hysteria, we can begin to understand that issues of gender and sexuality are as crucial to the history of male experience as they have been in shaping the history of women.
The Radio 4 programme is otherwise excellent and talks to historians, literary critics, psychiatrists and the like about Victorian madness.
Thanks to the changes to the BBC website it is only available for another six days before disappearing into the void forever.
Link to ‘Madwomen in the Attic’.