Love's Madness: Medicine, the Novel, and Female Insanity, 1800-1865.
Love's Madness is a challenging book which tackles a number of theoretical and critical issues associated with the subject of female insanity and literature. It mistrusts the 'vocabulary of extremes' used by certain feminists, and those who imply that madness 'carries with it an energy . . . which unsettles any merely conventional reading of the text in question' (p. 23). Instead, Small shows how in Jane Eyre (the locus classicus of feminist interest in literary madness), 'Bronte's writing about female rebellion . . . belongs within a predominantly conservative context' (p. 161). However, with Small this admission is not cause for regret or censure, for madness is not figured as inherently subversive or otherwise. As she demonstrates, context is all. Historical circumstances dictate how writers choose to represent female insanity, considerations often lost sight of by those who allow madness to function as a discursive 'black hole', and ignore how 'convention' informs discourses of and about madness. Small's attention to such factors offers an original and historically informed antidote to the romantic agonies which she identifies.
Love's Madness also challenges the 'easy cross-reference between literary and medical writing' characteristic of recent criticism (p. 36). For Small, the 'one culture' model fails to recognize how specific pressures shape representations. Once more, the convention of the love-mad woman disrupts received understandings. As Small demonstrates, in contrast to contemporary novelists, psychiatrists such as Cox, Conolly, Maudsley, and Morrison found 'the love-mad woman an intractable subject' (p. ix) for use within their increasingly specialized writings. The very conventionality of this tragic figure inhibited its use within a therapeutic model of diagnosis and cure. This Small illustrates with great authority. However, whether this exemplifies, or serves as an exception to, the rule is not established conclusively. The extension of this argument to psychiatry's 'use of literary allusion more generally' (p. 40; my emphasis), is problematic, resting on a somewhat selective reading of the 'decorative' function of literature in the writings of Conolly and Maudsley (p. 59). For Small, this also had a darker purpose, becoming a 'weapon' of class conflict (p. 70), and used to 'preserve medicine as a gentlemanly hermeneutic art at a time when gentlemanly medicine was under threat' (p. 61). Such considerations are significant, but cannot entirely negate the substantial and overt 'literary' character of much Victorian psychiatric discourse. The term 'allusion' scarcely covers the way literary culture functioned in the works of Maudsley, whose first major scientific article focused on Edgar Allen Poe, and who would return incessantly to the nature of literary genius and its relation to health and disease. This insistence on discounting the role of the literary within the medical appears in greater relief when Small reverses this process in later chapters. For example, her reluctance to admit an 'easy cross-reference' between the two domains is abandoned in her chapter on Charlotte Bronte, which shows how in Jane Eyre Bronte 'uses the insights of mid-nineteenth-century medical writing', 'plunder[s] medical and scientific theory', and depicts phenomena which 'reproduc[e]', 'fi[t]', and are 'in line' with contemporary 'diagnostic model[s] for interpreting mad-women' (pp. 156, 172, 165, 161, 163, 167). However, as Small admits, Bronte's 'reference' to medicine is often 'indirect' (p. 156). Small does make a plausible case for considering Bertha Mason as 'morally insane', but then moral insanity was the least precise (and potentially the most 'literary') category in the alienist's nosology - a diagnostic catch-all which interpreted ideological disruption as pathological aberration. Rochester's 'reproduc[tion]' of the symptomatology of this disorder when describing Bertha's behaviour surely reveals as much about the status of this concept as it does about 'Bronte's unflinching application of contemporary theories of the mind' (p. 168), which, in contrast to the physicians' recourse to literary culture, is largely 'indirect'. Small's earlier assertion that 'when we look at madness in literature we are looking at a representation of something that is already representation' (p. 19), appears to have been forgotten here, allowing psychiatry an epistemological autonomy and immunity from extra-scientific 'infection'. These objections do not detract from the quality of Small's criticism of individual texts, but indicate how Love's Madness leaves some of the questions about the 'separate fields' of literature and medicine which it sets out to address unresolved.
ROBERT MIGHALL Merton College Oxford
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|Publication:||The Review of English Studies|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1998|
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