Madmen in and out of the Attic

Posted by Chris Hart - Friday, 27 May 2022


By Amy Milne-Smith

Doctors, acquaintances, and family members agreed that if Arthur Nowell was not mad, he was an absolute fiend. Nowell had become convinced that his wife was having an affair. He was staunch in his beliefs that his wife was unfaithful. Mrs. Nowell adamantly denied any wrongdoing, as did her supposed paramour. Nowell would tell any and everyone about his wife’s infidelity, and eventually his behaviour became so extreme he spoke to imaginary voices and threatened people with a pistol. He could produce no evidence of this affair, nor could he offer any explanation as to why he believed he was a cuckold.

 His family grew concerned and had him sent to a lunatic asylum to avoid potential violence and spare his reputation. Nowell fought the incarceration, claiming he was not mad and simply jealous. Jealousy was his right as a husband, and nobody’s business. His wife, his doctors, and his family disagreed. But Nowell tried to have his involuntary treatment reversed, and sued for  unlawful incarceration. In defending the doctors and asylum who kept Nowell, lawyers brought up the example of Othello as an example of just how dangerous jealousy could be. The fate of Desdemona was proof that jealousy could become violent mania.

The line between madness and sanity has always been contested and culturally constructed. The stakes of defining madness were particularly high in the nineteenth century. The solutions that were offered, even at the height of optimism about potential cures, always entailed a serious deprivation of liberty and autonomy. To be certified as a lunatic meant a loss of one’s independence, one’s freedom, and in many ways one’s identify. This was true of anyone who was declared mad, but the implications for this change in status was particularly significant for British men. Because men had the most power and authority in Victorian Britain, this also meant they had the most to lose.

Victorian men were supposed to be in control of themselves and their place in the world. For a man to lose control of his actions and emotions in such a way as Nowell was to lose control of his identity as a man. In fact, an elderly female relative of Nowell testified that his behaviour had been both ‘cowardly, and unmanly.’ While to Nowell the stigma of madness threatened to ruin his reputation, to others it was the only thing saving it. My new book, Out of His Mind, places such stories at the centre of an exploration of male madness both as a lived reality and a cultural representation.

Scholars have done remarkable work centering women’s experiences of madness in their gendered identity for over forty years. And yet increasingly historians recognize that men’s experience and understanding of real or supposed insanity was also fundamentally shaped by gender, class, and location. The madman was a marginal figure, often confined in private homes, hospitals, and asylums. Yet as a cultural phenomenon he loomed large, tapping into broader social anxieties about respectability, masculine self-control, and fears of degeneration.

The figure of the madman was common in stories of violence and murder splashed about the popular press and contemporary fiction. Men who couldn’t control their emotions or their actions were portrayed more as fiendish beasts than men. Men whose symptoms were more self-contained, such as the melancholic or suicidal, were effeminized. Unable to pursue a career or lead a family, lunatics were unable to live up to the male standards of the age, either their own or others.

Bridging the traditional medical and asylum histories with cultural and gendered studies of madness, Out of his Mind studies the consequences of a diagnosis of insanity for men and their families. It covers a range of topics including: power struggles, syphilis, courtroom drama, protests, alcohol, same-sex desires, and violence. The consequences of these debates carried over into the First World War and beyond.

Out of his mind

Masculinity and mental illness in Victorian Britain

By Amy Milne-Smith

Out of His Mind interrogates how Victorians made sense of the madman as both a social reality and a cultural representation. 

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