[Part 2 of the author's "Men in Tears: Moral, Physical, and Emotional Exhaustion in the Victorian Sensation Novel."]

he salutary ordeal that strengthens and even transforms the weak anti-hero into a bouncing display of manly superiority over both female and foreign others is of course a recurring topos or cliché in Victorian fiction and also occurs in the sensation novel, a genre that excels in the minute delineation of the sensations of bodies and their sensational collapses. The topos of tested manliness is significantly situated in the tropical or arid places abroad, in an off-stage place that affirms imperial enterprises, which, however, become increasingly suspect. At the beginning of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860), the (anti-) hero Walter Hartright is “out of health, out of spirits” (10), a sensitive and also nervous foil to the monstrously big villain Fosco. He has consequently been perceived as an “important fictional figure from [this] transitional period of Victorian manliness” (Oppenheim, 149). Yet when he returns strengthened from the off-stage testing-ground — Central America in this case — that not only challenges, but re-creates his manliness, his protectiveness towards feeble or enfeebled women undermines the indictment of muscular heroes and also weakens the effect of the presentation of the strong woman, Marian Halcombe, who has rather nastily been called “almost the only moustached heroine in English fiction” (Symons, 59). As it is explicitly stated in the preamble, “this is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve” (9). The transformation of Hartright’s nervous sensibility figures as a reaffirmation of masculinity strengthened by experience abroad. In an even more straightforward affirmation of this topos in Wilkie Collins’s No Name (1862), the heroine’s undeserving suitor is a failure abroad, though he becomes a successful sycophant in England, whereas manly Captain Kirke, whose worth has been tested in the China Seas, arrives just in time on his aptly named ship, the Deliverance, to rescue her. This juxtaposition of enfeebling civilisation and a hard life in the off-stage locus of tested manliness also explains why sites abroad in Europe do not qualify as loci of salutary ordeals.

Hartright’s nervous exhaustion, however, is also externalised by the parodic figure of Mr. Fairlie, Laura’s hypochondriac uncle, as well as juxtaposed with Laura’s own nervous sensibility, which is, it is emphasised, endearing in a girl, even while it is dangerously doubled by the deranged Woman in White, Laura’s half-sister, Anne Catherick. Mr. Fairlie’s and Laura’s nervous susceptibilities are, in fact, the same and yet other. Whereas Laura is introduced as “nursing that essentially feminine malady, a slight headache,”“Mr. Fairlie’s selfish affectation and Mr. Fairlie’s wretched nerves meant one and the same thing” (9). His effeminate body is diagnosed as diseased: “He had a frail, languidly-fretful, over-refined look — something singularly and unpleasantly delicate in its association with a man” (36).

This distinction has aptly been called a “case of feminisation via the nerves” (Miller, 115). In Wilkie Collins’s The New Magdalen (1873), Lady Janet similarly remarks that “the medical profession thrives on two incurable diseases in these modern days — a He-disease and a She-disease. She-disease — nervous depression; He-disease — suppressed gout” (221). Yet a substantial number of sensation novels suggests that this “She-disease” is by no means restricted to female protagonists. A line of physically weak heroes proves the contrary. While at first denounced as effeminate, as in the case of Mr. Fairlie, they are reconfigured to represent an alternative conceptualisation of the “proper masculine”, shedding light on the changing treatment of male tearfulness in fiction. It is in this emphasis on male sensibilities and the confinement of young men in institutions that these sensation novels at once encompass and go beyond medical discourses on the popular Victorian concept of neurasthenia and the related concerns with definitions of insanity. The function of female insanity in Victorian fiction has, in fact, been sufficiently studied, which justifies my focus on the nervous diseases of sympathetically portrayed male protagonists. In The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture 1830-1980, Elaine Showalter speaks of a “pervasive cultural association of women and madness” (4). Alex L. Tuss’s analysis of the “troubled young man” is one of the very few studies that offer “a companion piece for the valuable body of criticism concerned with female writers, their works, and their representation of women” (2). Not only is the representation of men’s nervous illnesses and in particular their implications for the treatment of male tearfulness in both medical and fictional narratives underrepresented in studies of sensation fiction, but it also sheds a significantly different light on fictional re-workings of current medical discourses.

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Last modified 11 November 2002