The Victorian age was when mad-doctors became psychiatrists and the madhouses became asylums and eventually mental hospitals, the very definition of madness change from something strange and unpredictable to something treatable and within the grasp of human understanding. With this massive progress and interest in the mind it is only reasonable that the literature of the time also inherits and discuss upon this topics. Well known psychiatrists like Freud and Kierkegaard was expanding the understanding of the human mind and lay down the groundwork for what we today consider the field of psychology. To plead insanity for a crime became common practise in law and anxiety was addressed as a real disorder for the first time. In this new sea of interest and claims about the mind many ground-breaking new theories were set forth, most have been deemed false today, but false or true they helped lay down the groundwork for our understanding of the mind today. With all this controversy and discussion about the mind and its inner workings it is no surprise that this was a favoured subject among writers in the Victorian era. In this text I wish to shine light upon a new disturbance of the mind that was particularly popular with the Victorian writers, namely Monomania. To understand what monomania was for Victorian writers and readers we will look upon how the concept of monomania is present in the novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë and Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.
The modern reader is most likely not familiar with the term monomania as it is no longer considered a valid theory, but the attentive Victorian reader would have some understanding of what monomania is and would upon reading the very word form an opinion on the matter. So what is really monomania? In Lady Audley’s Secret the reader is given a very broad definition of what monomania is through the mind of Lady Audley: ‘What is one of the strongest diagnostic of madness – what is the first appalling sign of mental aberration? The mind becomes stationary; the brain stagnates; the even current of the mind is interrupted; the thinking power of the brain resolves itself into a monotone. As the waters of a tideless pool putrefy by reason of their stagnation, the mind becomes turbid and corrupt through lack of action; and perpetual reflection upon one subject resolves itself into monomania. Robert Audley is a monomaniac.’ (Braddon, 311) Now this sounds horrifying for any reader but what is Lady Audley really saying? She is telling us the reader that a monomaniacs brain has stopped, and the monomaniac has lost his ‘thinking power’ due to ‘lack of action’ by dwelling on one topic. For the modern reader this sounds absurd as they are taught in school early on that the only time the brain stops is when we die, but the Victorians did not know this yet, and as a result they struggle to differentiate between the mind, soul and brain.
In Wuthering Heights the reader is not given a lengthy description of what monomania really is, the word is simply put in a sentence and only mentioned once the entire book. Heathcliff is in Wuthering Heights depicted as a monomaniac in regards to his single-minded obsession with Cathy, ‘About her I won’t speak; and I don’t desire to think; but I earnestly wish she were invisible – her presence invokes only maddening sensations’ (Bronte, 323). This idea of Heathcliff being mad is present in the language used by Brontë to describe Heathcliff’s feelings towards Cathy, and the Victorian reader would most likely have understood quite early on that Heathcliff was a monomaniac considering he is rather heavily fixated on her. If one as a reader read Wuthering Heights with the understanding that Heathcliff has a mental disorder from early on the way one judges his actions may differ. The modern reader become aware of Heathcliff’s mental disorder only in the last few chapters of the book when Nelly says: ‘(…) as to his reason, from childhood, he had a delight in dwelling on dark things, and entertaining odd fancies – he might have had a monomania on the subject of his departed idol; but on every other point his wits were as sound as mine.’ (Bronte, 324). Nelly is of course bias and not a big fan of Heathcliff so anything she says has to be taken with a grain of salt. It is however an interesting choice of word for Brontë showing just how widely accepted monomania was as a mental disorder at the time the book was written and how interested the Victorian readers was.
Monomania is according to the Oxford Dictionary ‘Exaggerated or obsessive enthusiasm for or preoccupation with one thing’ and the term was first used around 1810 by French psychiatrist Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol (1772–1840). One of the reasons why monomania was extremely shocking and terrifying to the Victorians was due to the fact that it was incredibly difficult to notice a monomaniac. Creating the image of a madman hidden among the sane, a demon in human shape. And for the Victorians living in a world where you should be able to trust your neighbour and without this widespread mobility around the world we have today it was a horrifying idea that the people you know and trust might suddenly break out in a mad rage and kill you. The very idea of monomania inserts the uncanny into the individual human and raise the question about what sanity really is. To understand the hysteria that monomania was it is important to understand what is meant by the uncanny. Bennett and Royle define the uncanny as the ‘sense of unfamiliarity which appears at the very heart of the familiar, or else a sense of familiarity which appears at the very heart of the unfamiliar.’ (35) And this fits perfectly considering monomania it is a hidden madness lurking underneath a seemingly sane outer layer. Take Lady Audley for example, she is adored by most and seem angelic, but in the end it turns out she is nothing but a demon in disguise something that greatly disturbed the Victorian minds no doubt as this is the reason why sensational novels became sensational. As explained in Victorian Crime, Madness and Sensation by Maunder and Moore for a story to ‘electrify the nerves of the reader’ (p.98) it has to be set in the present depicting people the reader know and maybe just met. Monomania takes the familiar and twist it so that what you thought you knew is all wrong, giving you the reader this sneaking sensation crawling down your spine that something is just not right even though it all seems fine on the outside. Braddon was aware of this fear and the effect of the uncanny that comes hand in hand with monomania to the point where she actively feeds it; ‘People are insane for years and years before their insanity is found out. They know that they are mad, but they know how to keep their secret; and, perhaps they may sometimes keep it till they die.’ (Braddon, 310).
The very concept of Monomania force the reader to question what being mad and sane really means. Both Heathcliff and Robert Audley are obsessed with one person but their obsessions, or monomania as a Victorian reader would say, is presenting itself in quite different ways. Through Robert’s monomania towards George Talboys justice is found and most people find him pleasing to be around and they do not consider him a danger. Heathcliff’s monomania frightens and tortures the people around him and makes him difficult to be around. These contradictions with monomania is probably one of the reasons why it is not a valid theory today. However monomania and the way it is used as a tool in writing to create sensation or an uncanny feeling tells us as readers about the fears and hysteria that exist when it comes to there being something wrong with one’s mind, a fear that is very much still around in today’s society. And although monomania is no longer considered a valid theory concerning the human mind, other new and frightening ones are gaining popularity much like monomania did in the Victorian age. Why are we humans so obsessed with the mind, could it be due to the fact that we as humans can never really truly know what goes on in the mind of anyone but our own? Bynum suggests, in Madhouses, Mad-Doctors, and Madmen edited by Andrew Scull, that physician’s might actually just be public servants in charge of taking care of the people whom society for whatever reason finds intolerable. If Bynum is right can we then really call Heathcliff or Robert Audley mad or sane, or are they simply just human?
Bennett, A. and Royle, N. (2009) An introduction to literature criticism and theory (4th edition). 4th edn. Harlow, U.K.: Pearson/Longman.
Braddon, M.E. (2012) Lady Audley&’s secret. London: Penguin Classics.
Brontë, E., Miller, L., Bronte, E. and Bront?e, E. (2003) Wuthering heights. Edited by Pauline Nestor. New York: Penguin Group (USA).
Moore, G. and Maunder, A. (eds.) (2004) Victorian crime, madness and sensation. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate Publishing.
Scull, A. and Scull (1981) Madhouses, mad-doctors, and madmen: The social history of psychiatry in the Victorian era. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
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