Women with agency are hard to control, and women who can’t be controlled are dangerous to Victorian ideals. We’ve talked about this in class. Heck, we’ve talked about similar ideas outside of class, since this concept does, to a certain degree, apply to our own culture. Women with agency are hard to control, and that frightens people in power. Even more threatening are people, especially women, with mental illnesses. The mentally ill are seen as difficult, sometimes impossible to control. Even in modern times, we are often written off as erratic, a view that is used to diminish (or at least hide) our role in society and to excuse an unhealthy and unjustified fear of us.
Anne Catherick may or may not have been mentally ill when she was forced into an asylum, but her behavior upon escaping certainly defies any expectations one might have of a proper Victorian woman. As Sr. Percival’s lawyer, Mr. Merriman, puts it, “A dangerous woman to be at large, Mr. Gilmore; nobody knows what she may do next” (154). And he’s right—nobody does! Anne Catherick remains a mystery thus far in the novel, but the danger she poses to ideas of what a woman should be in her society is so strong that it cannot be shrouded, not even by the aura of uncertainty that surrounds her and her past.
The portrayal of Anne Catherick as (potentially) mentally ill reflects Victorian and modern views on mental illness, views that I have more or less covered. Anne’s behavior is unpredictable, which makes her impossible to control. Furthermore, she has been successful in evading Sir. Percival’s reach, signifying escape from a social hierarchy governed by class, gender, and money (three things that place Sir. Percival in power). Because Anne is a woman, and a lower class woman at that, her escape from a hierarchy that would deny her even the most basic power (power over the self) is a threatening one. If more women were like Anne, they could completely upend Victorian society, and where would Sir. Percival be then?
By interpreting Anne as mentally ill, her society minimizes her power as an autonomous woman while also stigmatizing her and excusing her mistreatment. And to be completely honest, this is not solely a Victorian issue. Stigma around mental illness remains a huge problem, and that stigma is sometimes co-opted in order to dismiss women. In modern America, mental illness is often talked about in the context of violence, suggesting that mentally ill people are more likely than people who are not mentally ill to be violent (they aren’t: http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/04/mental-illness-crime.aspx). Take today’s trending topics on Facebook, which actually included the phrase “Madman with a Cleaver.” How does that not strengthen the association between mental illness and danger? On a less sensational level, I suspect that most of us have heard an outspoken woman called “crazy” at one point or another (some of us have even been that woman). What does it say about our society that women who demonstrate power still risk being dismissed as members of an even more marginalized group?
The Woman in White is a product of Victorian society, but it’s hard not to notice its modern connections. Regardless of whether or not Anne Catherick is actually mentally ill, her confinement to an asylum and Mr. Merriman’s later comments both reflect fears of autonomous women and unpredictability. These fears continue to infect in our own society, and while blame can only be placed on us for continuing to promote them, it is interesting to look at their earlier manifestations in Victorian literature.