She’s insane but at least she’s pretty.

“She was between ten and eleven years old then, slow at her lessons, poor soul, and not so cheerful as other children – but as pretty a little girl to look at as you would wish to see” (Collins 494).

This quote refers to Anne Catherick and was said by her mother when she describes her daughter. Not only does it touch on mental illness and physical appearance but also about gender and the perception of women in the Victorian Era. A trope that I recognize in the character of Anne is the beautiful-but-crazy woman. Throughout the novel, it is emphasized multiple times that Anne does look pretty (because she looks so much like Laura) but that she is also not mentally healthy. This reminds me of other “mad” female figures in Victorian novels, such as Lady Audley’s Secret or Jane Eyre. Gilbert and Gubar’s essay about The Madwoman in the Attic explores this in greater detail but it is striking that the women who are put into asylums in these stories are usually attractive. The quote underlines that attractiveness is of great importance when it comes to women in the Victorian Era. Negatively connated adjectives, such as “slow”, “poor”, and “not so cheerful” seem to be balanced out by prettiness. It also underlines that the wellbeing of the child is unimportant, as long as it is pretty. While this passage seems to be about mental illness and beauty, it is also about the superficiality of Victorian society.

This raises the question to me why that is and which effect attractiveness in incaptured women causes in the reader. Is it because the reader would be intimidated by “crazy” femme fatales and happy when they end up in an asylum? Comparing the sensation novel to contemporary forms of entertainment, maybe they share the feature that they often use very attractive characters because it is more appealing for the recipients.

Another aspect that bothers me about the “madwoman” trope in Victorian literature is that it reproduces the idea that there are many women who are legitimitally crazy and who belong in an asylum. As we discussed in class, many women were sent to mental institutions for a variety of reasons, including what was known as “hysteria” and I am under the impression that sensation novels use that trope only to bring a shocking factor into the story. Since the female characters in the stories are often portrayed as crazy, they do not feature those women who are falsely accused of madness and sent to asylums. I was positively surprised when Collins incorporated it in The Woman in White.

However (unfortunately, I could not find a second source to confirm this, but)…

… I read online that Wilkie Collins was strongly inspired for The Woman in White by the case of Louisa Nottidge who was the blue print for the character of Laura Glyde. She was sent to a lunatic asylum by a man named Henry James Prince who would financially profit very much from the situation. With the help of others, Nottidge was freed and she successfully sued Prince for sending her to the asylum. It was very scandalous at the time and the online article said that Collins tried to profit off of the attention this case received by incorporating it in his novel. If this is true, his intentions maybe were not of the feminist kind.


*Penguin Classics Version from 1974

5 thoughts on “She’s insane but at least she’s pretty.”

  1. I found you’re thought on the pretty but crazy trope super interesting. Another example of this would be Alice in Wonderland. We’re going to read this later I think, so I look forward to seeing how you read that play. Alice is described as very beautiful but she also has this insane dream, vision, an episode about a crazy world. I wonder how this story would be viewed through the lens of pretty but crazy.

  2. This is excellent and I wonder if we can tie this into our conversation about women in Victorian art (and the general concept of art at this time). This idea of beauty for beauty’s sake, regardless of cost or a sense of personhood permeates the pre-Raphaelite period and this novel. Hartright’s view of Laura and nearly everyone’s perception of Anne seem to fall in line with this sort of thought: it doesn’t matter if they lack agency or sanity, they are beautiful.

  3. I think your points are super interesting and definitely give us a lot to think about even as we move past the woman in white. However, I am still not sure what the definition of “crazy” is for the Victorian Era. Is it anything that falls along the lines of hysteria? Or any woman who does not fit into the neat little box of pretty, cheerful, and reserved. I think the Victorian society were easily threatened by those who were not like everyone else or could not fit into the community. Therefore I believe that asylums were used as a means of control brought on by fear of the defiant or different. Perhaps the attractiveness aspect comes into play because women who were pretty were the ones that got the most attention, therefor men noticed their “mad” habits or differences more than those of unattractive women.

  4. I think this is a really thrilling analysis and I want to take it further by discussing the fact that this novel is a story of men; it is a narrative of men who control, manipulate, and manifest to their own ends. To your point then, of why women are portrayed in Victorian literature as crazy yet beautiful (they still are; just ask Luke Combs –, I say this: it’s for the men. Walter Hartright, Count Fosco, and Percival Glyde use the women of the novel, mostly and especially Anne and Laura, as the means to an end, admiring them but shutting them up to avoid a threat of losing them or revealing their secrets.

  5. I think it’s important that you highlight how Anne presents something of a contradiction. On one hand, the novel present her attractiveness as something to outweigh her mental state. On the other hand, Victorian society, in a broader sense, perpetuates that mental illness and ugliness are interlinked while, at the same time, pushing the trope of beautiful, “hysterical” women. This seems almost hypocritical, and most certainly warrants further investigation. However, I’m not exactly sure what you mean about Victorian superficiality. Structurally, this argument seems to be leaning in more into “madwoman” trope and its effects on Victorian society. It might be worthwhile to swap the points about the madwoman and Victorian audiences. That might leave some more room to incorporate the ugliness/madness contradiction into a broader analysis on Victorian culture.

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