“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