Borderlines of Madness in 19th century fiction

Course Dates: 18/03/23 - 25/03/23
Time: 10:00 - 13:00
Location: Keeley Street
We will explore various themes related to insanity and altered states of consciousness by examining a number of 19th-century works of fiction. Novelists and poets often had the greatest insights into the workings of the mind, and many Victorian psychiatrists cited works of fiction in their case studies. Among the authors we will cover are Charlotte Bronte, Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, Gogol, Herman Melville and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
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Full fee £69.00 Senior fee £55.00 Concession £45.00

Course Code: HLT43

Sat, day, 18 Mar - 25 Mar '23

Duration: 2 sessions (over 2 weeks)

Or call to enrol:020 7831 7831

Lines open Monday-Friday 12:00-18:00

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What is the course about?

To explore representations of extreme mental states in 19th-century fiction. All diagnoses were hotly contested, and among the psychological phenomena we will examine are ‘hysteria’, paranoia, alcoholism, ‘moral insanity’ (ie psychopathy), learning difficulties and post-natal depression. We will also examine the phenomenon of the Victorian asylum. Each of the authors had a huge insight into such states, and constructed impressive and thoughtful works of art to explore these often distressing conditions and the impacts of those around those who suffered them.

What will we cover?

-The Fall of the House of Usher (1839). Poe’s short story contains a range of psychological phenomena. They include: morbidity, neurosis/hysteria, heredity, possibly also venereal disease.
-Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847). We will concentrate on: ‘moral insanity’, alcoholism, serious delusional disorder/‘schizophrenia’, the menstrual cycle, home-incarcerated ‘lunatics’.
-The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1860). Wrongful or malicious asylum certification. Learning difficulties.
-The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892). Gilman’s short story/novella covers: post-natal psychosis, the medicalisation of femininity, the late 19th-century diagnosis ‘neurasthenia’.
-Bartleby The Scrivener by Herman Melville (1853): ‘monomania’, autism, work-related anxiety, the ‘crisis’ of masculinity.
-The Diary of A Madman by Nikolai Gogol (1834); paranoia, delusions of grandeur.
-Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins (1934). The plight of the learning disabled, legal measures to protect those deemed incapable of caring for themselves, the passing of the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act.

What will I achieve?
By the end of this course you should be able to...

- Define key diagnoses made by 19th-century psychiatrists.

- Identify the opposition that was expressed to each of these theories.

- Identify the stylistic innovation and shifts in literary genre that each of these works display.

- Explore the attitude and approach to the subject of mental illness shown by a number of giants of 19th-century fiction, and the narrative strategies they used to present their views.

- Pursue further reading on these subjects, with a detailed bibliography/secondary reading list handout.

What level is the course and do I need any particular skills?

No previous skills or knowledge required except curiosity and an capacity for reading texts that are occasionally distressing; sharing your insights with the group is desirable.

How will I be taught, and will there be any work outside the class?

Teaching will be delivered via mini-lecture and seminar, with group discussion strongly encouraged. Extracts will be sent out ahead of sessions, so that learners can formulate views and questions in advance of the class.

Are there any other costs? Is there anything I need to bring?

Most texts are available to download for free since they are out of copyright. If you prefer reading paper copies, most of the works can be purchased relatively inexpensively or borrowed from a library.

When I've finished, what course can I do next?

Look up Literature courses on our website at under History, Culture and Writing/Literature.

Sarah Wise

Sarah Wise is an award-winning writer and historian, with an MA in Victorian Studies from Birkbeck, University of London. She teaches social history and literature at the University of California’s London Outreach Center. Her interests are urban history, working-class history, medical history and nineteenth-century literature and reportage. Her most recent book, Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England, was shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize. Her 2004 debut, The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave Robbery in 1830s London, was shortlisted for the 2005 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction and won the Crime Writers’ Association Golden Dagger. Her follow-up The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum (2008) was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature's Ondaatje Prize. Last year she was a contributor to the volume Charles Booth's London Poverty Maps, published by Thames & Hudson/London School of Economics. For reviews

Please note: We reserve the right to change our tutors from those advertised. This happens rarely, but if it does, we are unable to refund fees due to this. Our tutors may have different teaching styles; however we guarantee a consistent quality of teaching in all our courses.