Monomania: The Life and Death of a Psychiatric Idea in Nineteenth-Century Fiction 1836-1860

Stewart, Lindsey (2018). Monomania: The Life and Death of a Psychiatric Idea in Nineteenth-Century Fiction 1836-1860. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis is about the nineteenth-century psychiatric idea, monomania, in medical, literary and popular discourse from 1836-1860. I examine patient case-notes from the Bethlem, York Retreat and Surrey County Pauper Asylum to establish that the experiential or ‘real’ narratives of monomaniacs confirm the category’s initial confusion with melancholia, and then its conflation with social commentary. Used sparingly in clinical practice, physicians account for a range of anti-social behaviour with its deployment as a diagnosis. However, I argue that it is in the literature of the day that the idea is most widely celebrated. Demonstrating its variant, unstable meanings, the texts I read use monomania explicitly. They include works by the Brontë sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot, neglected thriller pieces by Dinah Craik, the pseudonymous ‘Thomas Waters’, and an anonymously authored story from The Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, Music and Romance. These works all pre-date monomania’s more well-known later incarnations by Wilkie Collins and Charles Reade.
I argue that the idea’s popularisation followed a temporal arc which had three phases: in its rising phase (up to the McNaughtan trial in 1843) it generally referred to a pathological excess of passion, at its peak it was inflected with ideas of moral decrepitude, criminality and incarcerable insanity, and its demise saw it coupled with notions of monstrosity and an inverse, mechanistic lack of emotionality. I examine its parallel literary utilisation in constructing ideas of disproportion and transgression in relation to the emotions, as well as the construction of pathogenic environments (notably in Mary Barton (1848)) which gave rise to what the Victorians styled as ‘diseases of the mind’. In Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853) and George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860), the condition was reprised to evoke both period detail and the self-disciplining agendas of their heroines. A novelistic ‘diagnosis’ of monomania is a point of crisis in these texts, drawing attention to attempts to silence ‘extravagant’ emotion. In its second phase, I contend that its courtroom utility associates literary monomania with masculine, controlling behaviours. Periodical stories use it to signal topicality and educate readers on this new ‘contagion’, modifying the disease’s symptoms to suit their readerships. Unlike the pre-nineteenth-century trope of melancholy as a too-feeling subjectivity (which is still in evidence in the Brontë sisters’ novels), this ‘second-phase’ monomania suggests that too much masculine feeling might quickly disrupt the domestic space. The idea’s afterlife as a form of degenerative criminality, can be traced through to stories such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Six Napoleons (1904) in which the villain’s alleged monomania co-exists with abnormal simian agility and an outsized jaw.

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