Borderlines of madness in 19th century fiction

Course Dates: 02/02/24 - 15/03/24
Time: 10:15 - 12:15
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 analyse are Charlotte Bronte, Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, Gogol, Herman Melville and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
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Borderlines of madness in 19th century fiction
This course has started
  • Course Code: HLT23
  • Dates: 02/02/24 - 15/03/24
  • Time: 10:15 - 12:15
  • Taught: Fri, Daytime
  • Duration: 7 sessions (over 7 weeks)
  • Location: Keeley Street
  • Tutor: Sarah Wise

Course Code: HLT23

Started Fri, day, 02 Feb - 15 Mar '24

Duration: 7 sessions (over 7 weeks)

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What is the course about?

During this in-person literature class, we will 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 upon those close to the men and women who suffered from them.

What will we cover?

The seven works we will study are (in this order):

(NB week 1 will be a course and topic overview; week 6 will cover both Bartleby and Diary of a Madman.)

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.

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...

* 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.

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

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

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

* 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 a 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?

There is quite a lot of reading involved, though extracts will also be suggested if you do not have time to complete an entire book.

Teaching will be delivered via mini-lecture and seminar; students are encouraged to present their own short seminar presentation on any of the fictions that are of greatest interest, though this is not mandatory.

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

Most of the works can be purchased relatively inexpensively or borrowed from a library. Most are available to download for free since they are out of copyright. Please see this list below for the URLs

The Fall of the House of Usher

The Jane Eyre chapters we will concentrate on are 12 to 27 inclusive. These focus on the problematic figure of Bertha Mason, ‘the madwoman in the attic’:

The Woman in White text is available online here: The Project Gutenberg E-text of The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

The Yellow Wallpaper is online here:

Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville
and The Diary of a Madman by Gogol (scroll down through the first short story in this link)
The Mantle and Other Stories, by Nicholas Gogol—A Project Gutenberg eBook

Week 7 For our final week, there doesn’t appear to be an online version of Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins as it is still in copyright, but it is available to buy at relatively low cost or to borrow from your local library.

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

The tutor will also be teaching HLT313 Apocalypse London. Please see this course and our range of Literature courses under History, Culture and Writing/Literature on the website at

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. She was a contributor to the volume Charles Booth's London Poverty Maps, published by Thames & Hudson/London School of Economics, and appeared on BBC Radio 4's In Our Time to discuss Booth's work 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.