Amy Milne-Smith, On the trail of madness: (Micro) media panics in the Victorian press

 Amy Milne-Smith is Associate Professor of History at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada. She is the author of London Clubland: A Cultural History of Gender and Class in Late-Victorian Britain (2011) and several articles on the history of elite masculinity. Her current research focuses on representations and understandings of men’s mental illness both in public and private life. You can follow her on Twitter @AmyMilneSmith.

This post accompanies Amy Milne-Smith’s Journal of Victorian Culture article, ‘Shattered Minds: Madmen on the Railways’, which can be read here.

In studying the inner workings of the gentlemen’s clubs of London, I came across several stories of clubmen behaving rather strangely. Urinating in cloakrooms, piling ice atop their head, instigating fistfights… the behaviour was outlandish, eccentric, and in some cases disturbed. Apologetic relatives wrote to club committees explaining their relatives’ behaviour as a case of everything from sunstroke to the recent escape from a lunatic asylum [i].

The stories were tragic and complicated, but they were also rather confusing. These tales did not connect to the dominant narrative inspired by Elaine Showalter’s work.  She defines madness as a female malady until shell shock and the horrors of the First World War forced men into public attention [ii]. Wasn’t it the madwoman in the attic after all?

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (London: 1897)
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (London: 1897)

But then clubs were semi-private spaces. Perhaps men’s madness was simply not discussed in public discourse, or perhaps their struggles were not gendered in the same way as women’s. These questions lingered for me on the back burner as I worked away at my club research.

Luckily, by the time I was able to turn from clubmen to madmen, a revolution in digitization enabled a ready way to assess Showalter’s work. The Nineteenth-Century Newspaper Database allows for a quick-hand way to access public debate and public consciousness. With a judicious keyword search, one can assess the feasibility of many projects.

In the case of men and madness, not only did the famous and oft-cited media scandals turn up, but also smaller, less well-known panics and concerns. Some concerns flared up and burned out, while others slowly simmered, only to reappear in new forms. A careful researcher can then look at how stories fit into larger debates, and see the context of what came before and after.

The stories of men and madness were front and centre in the public consciousness. Across a wide range of publications there were debates, prophecies, and moralizations about men and madness. Not only did the database identify a large pool of articles, it also allowed me the ability to spot trends, which was my exact goal in the first stage of my research.

Paul Stafford, A Tale of Madness (Belfast: 1890)
Paul Stafford, A Tale of Madness (Belfast: 1890)

Lunacy commissions of wealthy men were covered in minute and intensive detail. Stories that underscored how men could be driven to mad acts of violence through rage, or jealousy, or alcohol were also common. But these, perhaps, were things I already knew. More surprising were the smaller, more focussed debates that jumped out of the mass of data.

The first surprising trend popped up around mid-century: madmen on trains. There had been a glut of stories on the topic for two decades and then they seemed to suddenly disappear. If one believed the newspapers, lunatics were haunting every rail car in Britain for a while. Familiar with much of the excellent work on the Victorian railway as symbol of modernity and as site of disaster, this was an element I had not heard much about. My research did not end with the newspapers, but they did provide an invaluable beginning.

The small-scale panics resulting from these stories beg the question of why some stories became sensational, and others did not. In some cases it was about the people involved: celebrities, and the titled. Charismatic characters always draw attention. In others it seems about the quality of the story itself: macabre, tragic, or heroic tales make good copy. But then, sometimes, small-scale incidents become headline news. Everyday stories of unremarkable people suddenly catch fire, and small dramas are dramatically blown out of proportion.

The Metropolitan Railway, 1862.
The Metropolitan Railway, 1862.

These micro media panics can reveal more about underlying social anxieties than large-scale stories. Because the stories themselves are small, they are thrust into prominence only because they touch on hotbed issues. Digital technology allows us to explore the Victorians as never before, and at its best inspires us to ask new questions.

For any scholar interested in the history of representation and cultural perceptions, digital tools not only make our research easier, they change the nature of that research [iv]. We must invariably change how we formulate and research our work in the face of emergent technology. The digitization of Victorian texts and images is revolutionizing historical research in ways I could have never imagined during my first archival researches into clubland.

Research into men and madness has come a long since Showalter. Literary critics and sociologists have led the way in unpacking and researching representations of men and madness in the Victorian era [iii]. Ten years after encountering my mad clubmen, I am now confident they were not simply exceptional, but also emblematic Victorian figures.


[i] Amy Milne-Smith, London Clubland: A Cultural History of Gender and Class in late-Victorian Britain (New York: Palgrave University Press, 2011).

[ii] Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (London: Virago, 1987).

[iii] Fore example: Joan Busfield, “The Female Malady? Men, Women and Madness in Nineteenth Century Britain,” Sociology 28, no. 1 (1994): 259–77; Misha Kavka, “Ill but Manly: Male Hysteria in Late Nineteenth-Century Medical Discourse,” Nineteenth-Century Prose 25, no. 1 (1998): 116–39; Mark S. Micale, Hysterical Men: The Hidden History of Male Nervous Illness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008); Valerie Pedlar, The “Most Dreadful Visitation”: Male Madness in Victorian Fiction (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005).

[iv] Patrick Leary, “Googling the Victorians,” Journal of Victorian Culture 10, no. 1 (2005): 72-86.




One comment

  1. Very interesting reading here – to see not only the topic, mad men, but also the process you took in forming questions, discovering trends, etc. It’s nice to see that transparency, rather than simply read conclusions drawn after the process. Thank you.

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