Anne & Joanna: Women in the Asylum and “Masculine Responsibility”

“She has escaped from my asylum!” (31) Thus begins the fifth chapter of Wilkie Collins’ sensation novel The Woman in White. Walter Hartright, who has just helped a woman escape from an asylum and find her way to London, ponders the consequences of his actions while torn between two possibilities. “What had I done? Assisted the victim of the most horrible of all false imprisonments to escape; or cast loose on the wide world of London an unfortunate creature, whose actions it was my duty, and every man’s duty, mercifully to control?” (32) Anne Catherik’s appearance and situation while puzzling reminded me of the runaway bride, and while that has yet to be determined as the case it bears striking similarities it is reminiscent of the story of Joanna, and of many other women wrongfully put in asylums, from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street[1].

Joanna is in the care of an elderly and corrupt Judge Turpin who had her father sent to prison overseas because he wanted to possess her mother, and after he proposes to his ward (and she refuses) he has her thrown into the asylum until she “consents” to marry him. While this may not be the exact case with Anne, both characters represent a common problem for women of the 19th and early 20th centuries. According to the London Science Museum website a multitude of women who “rejected domesticity” faced the potential danger of being thrown into the insane asylum. They were then subjected to moral treatment, in which a patient is treated like a child rather than an animal and the doctor/caregiver must view themselves as the father running a strict household. Women in asylums were regarded as needing a strong masculine authority in order to be “healed.”

Many people were outraged by how women were treated in asylums, which the London Science Museum also notes contributed to the trope of the “madwoman in the attic” in Victorian literature. If this is the case, and Walter clearly recognizes that women are often unjustly sent to asylums, why does he doubt his actions? While there is the possibility that someone escaping from an asylum has committed some horrible crime but due to their condition were put there, it is highly unlikely. Walter knows the reality of how common cases of innocent women in asylums are. Yet whether or not Anne is in the asylum there is still the problem of a woman on her own, who needs to be controlled by all men.

Thus comes a problem of not only The Woman of White but of society in general. If we think of Walter as all men (and so far the book has only been read from the narration of men), then there is an internal struggle of power due to societal standards and the forced “masculine responsibility.” Men recognize that women are in a troubling social position, yet don’t want to help for fear of relinquishing their power. Therefore, Walter’s thoughts after helping Anne reflect some form of male anxieties and the supposed necessity of male dominance.

[1] While the book The String of Pearls on which the musical is based takes place in the late 18th century, the musical adaptation is based around 1847 in Victorian London.

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Noah S. Thompson

Noah S. Thompson is an Senior English and Art & Art History double major at Dickinson College with a passion for bees, gluten-free pastries, and all things queer. His work primarily focuses on portraiture and abstraction.

2 thoughts on “Anne & Joanna: Women in the Asylum and “Masculine Responsibility””

  1. The parallels between Joanna and Anne are exceptional, however while reading, I was reminded of another troublesome madwoman: Bertha Mason. Bertha Mason appears in Charlote Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” as well as the prequel novel “Wide Sargasso Sea.” Her portrayal in both novels differ dramatically. While her original incarnation portrays her as an insane, unstable, homicidal madwoman in the attic, the second characterization demonstrates how the wealthy, beautiful daughter of a prominent family became imprisoned and driven mad by her husband.

    As Noah notes, women who refuse to meet the demands of domesticity are often treated with threats of violence or imprisonment. Perhaps similarly to Bertha, Anne became an inconvenient or unwanted wife/bride/fiancee. Additionally, if Glyde indeed exchanged Anne for Laura, the novel suggests that Victorian society may have often seen these women as disposable and replaceable. If a woman–such as Anne–is too difficult of a partner or wife, she can quickly be locked away and interchanged with a younger, submissive, demure girl (just as we see in Jane Eyre).

  2. This connects really well with the Redundunce article, which reflected the general male concern of single women who, like you said, are women on their own. I’m not really sure though whether simply that explains Walter’s doubt of his actions. If he were so worried about that, wouldn’t he have felt more off in the first place, helping Anne when she was so totally alone and looking undoubtably odd, to say the least? I agree that that the concern is underlying, but I feel like there might be another layer to why it decided to surface. Something to think about. (+And this is beside the point, but I totally love your voice!)

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