Victorian Literature and the History and Philosophy of Psychology

Serena Trowbridge, Birmingham City University

Phrenology model
Phrenology model

In March I had the opportunity to participate in a symposium at the British Psychological Society’s History and Philosophy of Psychology (HPP) Conference at the University of Surrey. This session was convened by Gregory Tate (Surrey), and included four papers: ‘Definitions of sanity and insanity in sensation novels by Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’ by Helena Ifill (Sheffield), ‘Diagnosis and mental trauma in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette’ by Alexandra Lewis (Aberdeen), ‘The self-diagnosis of Sydney Carton’ by Serena Trowbridge (Birmingham City) and ‘Pathology, criminality, and art in the writings of Oscar Wilde’ by Nazia Parveen (Leicester).

The HPP conference programme demonstrated a wide variety of responses to the history of psychology, from examinations of pioneers of psychological practice to reactions to the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, which attempts to classify standard psychiatric illnesses, for use by practitioners). Our panel was unusual in its focus not only on historic approaches to psychology but to their uses in the Victorian novel. Though each of the four speakers offered a very different approach, I think that between us we provided a fascinating snapshot of the differing ways in which nineteenth century writers responded to contemporary psychological and scientific debates.

Helena’s paper set the scene effectively for the panel, by examining how authors such as Braddon and Collins drew on reports in the popular press concerning madness and asylums in their sensation fiction, as well as contemporary doubts concerning diagnosis. Non-medical periodicals were full of articles about the symptoms, causes and treatment of insanity, as well as accounts of insane criminals and their trials. The paper showed how Braddon’s and Collins’ depictions of insanity would have been easily recognisable to Victorian readers of these periodicals. In part this was a way of providing an explanation for the extreme behaviour of their characters and adding shock value to their fiction. However, whilst they use the notion of insanity to create drama and sensation in their fiction, they also allude to controversial contemporary concerns: questions of medical authority, hereditary taints and the pressures of modern life are all explored in their works. By engaging with these issues, the paper argued, their novels entertain whilst both perpetuating and questioning popular conceptions of insanity.

Alexandra continued this theme by considering Charlotte Brontë’s interest in medicine and psychology, and the various and subtle ways in which this is manifested in Villette. Her paper referenced a range of nineteenth-century scientific and philosophical texts with which Brontë was familiar, and noted that diseases of both body and mind, and the manner in which the role of the doctor came to overtake that of the priest in early to mid-nineteenth-century England, were central concerns in the works of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. Drawing in part on her forthcoming chapter in Picturing Women’s Health (Pickering & Chatto), Alexandra’s conference paper explored the intersection between diagnosis, trauma and narrative, investigating Brontë’s use of the perspective of both medical practitioner and, more centrally, patient, to consider areas of human psychology thought to be inexpressible and, at the time, perhaps, undiagnosable: trauma and unquiet memory.

Sydney Carton
A Tale of Two Cities, illustration by John McLenan, Sydney Carton and Lucie in the quiet house in Soho. 1859.

The issue of diagnosis of mental illness was picked up again in my paper on Sydney Carton, in Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. It’s well-known that Dickens was interested in the treatment and medicalization of mental illness, most clearly represented in this novel by Dr Manette, but Carton also offers an interesting case give his self-diagnosed apathy and wasting of his life. Reasons for his attitude are hidden within the text, including in his doubled status with Charles Darnay, but my paper focused on how we might diagnose Carton by considering him as the opposite of Samuel Smiles’s ‘men of energy and courage’ whom he commends in Self-Help. My paper also asked why we might try to diagnose literary characters, concluding that this is both helpful in terms of examining socio-historical context and learning more about historical approaches to medicine, but that in many ways this is a very complicated approach, since we can’t help but filter our readings through our own cultural positions. Finally, of course, one sometimes has to remind oneself that these characters are fictional, and ultimately are plot devices, part of a textual strategy on the author’s part, albeit one which aims to create rounded and psychologically-believable characters.

Finally, Nazia concluded our symposium by examining the medicalization of homosexuality in the late nineteenth century, and Wilde’s response to this. Present day audiences do not often hear about Wilde’s response to critics who labelled him ‘diseased’, ‘sickly’ and ‘degenerate’. Thirteen years before Wilde would be charged with crimes of ‘gross indecency’ under the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, he authored a piece entitled ‘Pen, Pencil, and Poison: A Study’ about Thomas Griffiths Wainwright, who was a poet, painter, and ‘dilettante of all things beautiful’. He was eventually imprisoned for fraud and transported to Australia. Wainwright is also believed to have poisoned and killed his uncle, mother-in-law and sister-in-law, for monetary gain, all of who purportedly exhibited similar poisoning symptoms before death. However, this last claim is unverifiable and has led many biographers, including Wilde, to sensationalise and fictionalise Wainwright’s life. Contrary to what readers might expect from the essay, Wilde lingers over Wainwright’s aesthetic preferences and describes his beautiful possessions such as his ‘trays of Tassie’s gems’, filigree worked tea-pots and book engravings. Wilde passes over details relating to Wainwright’s victims emphasising the need to judge the artist and his work through a sort of ‘disinterested curiosity’, as demonstrated in the realm of science. For Wilde, ‘art nor science knows anything of moral approval or disapproval’. Many critics agree that ‘Pen, Pencil, and Poison: A Study’, is a guilty confession of Wilde’s own duplicitous life as a married man engaging in same sex acts. This paper argued that Wilde, who had read Darwin, Huxley and Tyndall, offered an evolutionary context in which to understand his own ‘sin’, over a hundred years before ‘homosexuality’ would be accepted as a biological fact.

The panel gave rise to some interesting discussion on the ways in which novels innovate as well as respond in the area of science. Though our symposium was, I think, a departure for the HPP conference, I think that those who attended found it interesting to hear a different approach to psychological reading. Throughout the conference, many papers drew on cultural theorists immediately familiar to literary scholars – including Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, and Deleuze and Guattari – to underpin their examinations of ideas from the history of psychology. These shared theoretical frameworks, and the persistent focus throughout the conference on careful linguistic analysis of psychological texts, suggested some surprising connections between the history of psychology and literary study. Our panel, though, brought something new to the conference in its focus on narrative, and specifically on how the narrative structures of fictional writing can be seen to reshape and inform the concerns of Victorian psychology (and, by extension, of psychological theories today).

If you are interested in the history of psychology, you may be interested by the BPS’s Origins website, which contains some information about the history and development of psychology as a discipline and a diagnostic tool.

Many thanks to Alexandra Lewis, Helena Ifill, Nazia Parveen and Gregory Tate for their input into this report.

Related JVC articles

Incongruous Compounds: Re-reading Jekyll and Hyde and Late-Victorian Psychology

‘One single ivory cell’: Oscar Wilde and the Brain

Serena Trowbridge is Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University. Research interests include Victorian poetry and novels; nineteenth century cultures of faith; Pre-Raphaelitism and Gothic. She blogs at Culture and Anarchy and tweets @serena_t.

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