[Part 3 of the author's "Men in Tears: Moral, Physical, and Emotional Exhaustion in the Victorian Sensation Novel."]

ictorian novels — and in particular sensation fiction — engage deliberately, in great detail, and often self-consciously as well as critically with current medical discourses as well as with the so-called pseudo-sciences that classify the body and its sensations such as, for instance, phrenology. In a recent article, Rebecca Stern speaks of the emergence of a “medical police” or “a detective of the body” (46), which links the sensation novel to the newly developing genre of the detective novel. Without doubt, just as truth-finding in these germinate detective novels often involves literal dissection or excavation of dead bodies — and also their “resurrection” from suspended animation as in Wilkie Collins’s Jezebel’s Daughter (1880) — the use of medical theories and treatments is foremost sensational. In Sheridan LeFanu’s In A Glass Darkly (1872), the notes of Martin Hesselius, a German (Gothic) physician, are collected by his “medical secretary”, who writes in the prologue to the first “story” — which is entitled “Green Tea” and describes how the excessive consumption of green tea can drive a man to cutting his throat by exciting “the reciprocal action of spirit and nerve” on which “disembodied spirits may operate” (43, 45), although hereditary suicidal mania is briefly evoked in a feeble attempt to find a rational explanation for the appearance of a malign demon:

[Hesselius] writes in two distinct characters. He describes what he saw and heard as an intelligent layman might, […] and in the terms of his art. […] Here and there a case strikes me as of a kind to amuse or horrify a lay reader with an interest quite different from the peculiar one which it may possess for an expert. (16)

This juxtaposition of the attempt at medical detail and even, in some cases, accuracy and the sensational deployment of what “strikes me as of a kind to amuse or horrify a lay reader” neatly encompasses the sensation genre’s ambiguous relationship with medicine. Hesselius’s notes describe cases that occurred sixty-four years before their systematic editing in the 1870s. The mysterious cases with their invocation of the supernatural, juxtaposed with ironically portrayed attempts at rational explanation by a series of more or less incompetent physicians and clergymen, are firmly located in the past. The Victorian belief in progress (including the progress of the medical profession) is thus combined with the similarly very Victorian preoccupation with pseudoscientific explanations of supernatural occurrences. The Two Destinies (1876), Wilkie Collins’s novel about telepathy or mesmerism, as it was mostly called before F.W.H. Myers formulated the concept of telepathy in 1882, similarly feeds on contemporary interest in a pseudoscientific rationale. It is “mesmerism [that] would account for [the hero’s] vision as the necessary result of a highly-developed sympathy” (173), but it is its representation of medical treatments of his “depressive delusions” that roots the novel in the vehement and sensational critique of medical institutions that pervades sensation fiction.

Forced confinement in a madhouse is a popular topos in Victorian sensation novels, expressing deep-seated anxieties about culturally constructed norms of normality. It is most famously realised in Collins’s The Woman in White, in which Laura is confined in an asylum instead of her half-sister, and slowly loses her sanity when repeatedly assured that her belief in her identity is a delusion. In The Two Destinies, telepathic communication is diagnosed as a delusion caused by a disease of the nerves or of the brain. The abuse of power by medical practitioners as well as by scheming relatives are the main ingredients of sensation plots that involve critical dissections of the medical treatment of emotions. Many of Collins’s novels as well as Charles Reade’s Hard Cash (1863) and Sheridan LeFanu’s The Rose and the Key (1871) build upon fear of this arbitrariness of medical diagnoses. Threatened with surveillance and restraint, the hero of The Two Destinies is forced to escape “like a criminal escaping from prison” (197). Similarly, Jezebel’s Daughter sympathetically describes one of “the poor martyrs of the madhouse” (17-18). In Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s best-known sensation novel, Lady Audley’s Secret (1861), mutual allegations of insanity are at the center of a power-struggle. From the outset of the story, Robert Audley is described as “the most vacillating and unenergetic of men” (39), which in a sense invites the villainess, Lady Audley, to denounce him as a nervous hypochondriac: “Are you going mad, Mr. Audley, and do you select me as the victim of your monomania? […] But I should warn you that such fancies have sometimes conducted people, as apparently sane as yourself, to the life-long imprisonment of a private lunatic asylum” (266-273)

In most sensation novels, medical symptomatologies are prominently inserted not so much in order to strive for accuracy, but in order to dismantle them. The visionary “phantoms” that communicate with the hero of The Two Destinies echo those described by John Barlow in his treatise on willpower and insanity, but are reaffirmed as genuine visions. In Man’s Power over Himself to Prevent or Control Insanity, Barlow asserts that “there’s every reason to suppose that where the habit of self-government is strong, […] nervous affection is not likely to occur” (11), thereby focusing the ideologies of willpower so frequently criticised, ridiculed, and arraigned in sensation novels. In her analysis of Victorian diagnoses of madness, Elaine Showalter emphasises the implications of conceptualisations of “moral insanity”, a concept introduced by James Cowles Prichard in 1835, for ideologies of energy and willpower:

In addition, not only moral insanity but also such traditional categories of madness as mania, dementia, and melancholia might be brought on by moral causes. By ‘moral causes’, most doctors meant that strong emotions and psychological stresses had reduced the system, ‘rendering it less capable of enduring fatigue, and thus depressing the vital powers.’ […] Victorian doctors believed that in most cases insanity was preventable if individuals were prepared to use their willpower to fight off mental disorder and to avoid excess. Mental health was to be achieved by a life of moderation and by the energetic exercise of the will. [29-30]

In The Treatment of Neurasthenia, A. Proust and Gilbert Ballet diagnose “aboulia, or enfeeblement of the will” as “one of the commonest features of the mental state of neurasthenics” (53). The congruity between the symptomatology of neurasthenia and the “dis-ease” of the tearful heroes of sensation fiction — akin to the men of sensibility in late eighteenth-century sentimental fiction, which similarly mirrored current medical discourses on hypochondria or melancholia — is striking. In A Practical Treatise on Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia), George M. Beard, pioneer in the exploration of this “Central Africa of medicine” (v) — a metaphor that feeds on the Victorian infatuation with exploration — mentions frequent blushing, appearance of youth, and abnormalities of the secretions: “In nervous exhaustion, the eyes may become moistened more readily than in health, and under a very slight emotion of pleasure or of pain. The flood-gates seem, as it were, to stand ajar; and on trifling agitation the tears flow forth.” (50) The description of nervous exhaustion in fiction minutely dramatises the current concepts of vis nervosa, a popular notion that the energy of a human body is “a definite and not inexhaustible quantity” (5), as Henry Maudsley puts it in Sex in Mind and in Education. Sensation novels at times vividly dramatise the draining of physical, mental, and emotional resources.

In the sensation novels of the last decades of the nineteenth century, exhausted, nervous, and tearful heroes are often praised for their sensitivity, which contrasts with the hypocrisy of more robust characters. Set at a time when the “weary old nineteenth century had advanced into the last twenty years of its life”, Wilkie Collins’ Heart and Science (1883), for instance, opens with the delineation of a brilliant young man who has received a “warning from overwrought Nature” (45). Ovid Vere’s neurasthenia — though cured in off-stage Canada — as well as his fiancée’s hysterical complaints are favourably contrasted with the “overpowering vitality” (127) of his mother, which “was beginning to oppress her son” (127). As I have shown elsewhere, Ovid’s fainting fit is the climax of Collins’s idealisations of male weakness (Wagner, 473-502). His interest in medical detail already occurs in his early novel Basil (1852) — in which the brain-fever of the hero is almost lovingly detailed – and permeates an expectedly often sensational description of sick, dying, dead, indulged, and exhausted bodies in a series of sensation novels. The victimised (anti-) hero of Charles Reade’s Hard Cash is not only a “bloke [who] really has awful headaches, like a girl” (33), but who is even early on in the novel — before his institutionalisation, which suits his relatives’ financial speculations – suspected of shedding tears. After a disappointing boat race, “one observed [that he] did not take the matter so coolly […], for he had shed a tear getting out of the boat” (27-28). It is precisely his “feminine” qualities such as tearfulness, sensibility, and even his nervous irritability that are used to externalise his emotional and significantly also his intellectual potential. In this he contrasts sharply with his university friends “who strayed into Aristotle in the intervals of Perspiration” (10-11).

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Last modified 16 November 2002