What the Moonlight Reveals About Women and Madness in the Nineteenth Century

By B. J.

BJ Punch

Literature, poetry, and non-fiction writing from the nineteenth century display the Victorian fascination with gender and gender roles. Determining what made a man a man, and a woman a woman, was relevant to them. Victorians associated women with purity, morality, gentleness, but also instability, fluidity, and hysteria. This sense of what a woman was lead many Victorians to also believe that women were more susceptible to fits, madness, and lunacy. Comparing a Punch editorial entitled “The Superiority of the Male Sex” to Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, I intend to suggest that while the connection between women and the moon led to overgeneralization that women were more likely to go mad, Collins’ work suggests deviation from this close-mindedness.

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Institutionalization of the Insane: “Of Right Mind” and The Woman in White

By J. T.

JT Scan1Eng

All the Year Round, a Victorian periodical by Charles Dickens, was published weekly throughout the United Kingdom from 1859 to 1893. All the Year Round replaced Dickens’s former magazine, Household Words, which focused on social issues of the time, after Dickens had a dispute with his publishers, Bradbury and Evans. All the Year Round included serialized novels, having “the opening page always contain[ing] one of the two serial installments of novels then running” and proved a “vehicle for novelists” rather than journalists (Allingham). All the Year Round also emphasized foreign and cultural affairs, as compared to the issues Household Words focused on, particularly those of the poor and working class (Drew 10). The Woman in White first appeared in forty weekly installments in All the Year Round, from 26 November, 1859, until 25 August, 1860 (Bachman and Cox 41). All the Year Round dealt with cultural affairs similar to those discussed in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, topics such as insanity, and the institutionalization of the insane. In “Of Right Mind,” an article published in All The Year Round, Volume 3, on September 22, 1860, the author challenges the Victorian view of insanity, claiming perfect mental health does not exist, a hefty statement considering the common Victorian mind set on insanity. Continue reading

Victorian Gender Representation and Marriage Dynamics as They Relate to Smoking in The Woman in White

By O.H.

The article titled “A Sensible Wife” from the Febuary 19th 1859 edition of Punch Magazine satirically looks at the dynamics of marriage regarding “smok[ing] in the house” (78). This article is small and just barely takes up the corner located in the lower right hand of page 78 of the large bound volume of Punch. This short piece contains a conversation between two women (one Mrs. Smith and one Mrs. Brown) on the benefits of allowing their husbands to smoke indoors (“A Sensible Wife” 78). The conversation lends towards the benefit of tobacco as a tranquilizer, having a calming effect upon the husband who would otherwise be of a temper when arriving home from his long day (“A Sensible Wife” 78). Letting the husband smoke indoors causes the wife to be seen as both a tolerant and good wife to allow him something that distresses her lungs but calms his (“A Sensible Wife” 78). This tongue-in-cheek look at the dynamics of a Victorian marriage is rather interesting in its relation to the marriage dynamics of the characters in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White.

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Criticism Above and Below the Stairs: The Changes in Class Structure Shown in Thomas P. Hall’s “Criticism” and Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White

By A. B.D.


The article entitled “‘Criticism’ – by T. P. Hall – In the Exhibition of the British Institute” contains an engraving of the painting “Criticism” and a brief review of the painting. The painting explores issues relating to changes in class structure. The article was published in The Illustrated London News on 24 March 1860. The Illustrated London News was a popular weekly newspaper founded by Herbert Ingram in 1842 that was available to large audience composed of people from different social classes, because of its relatively low price and beautiful engravings (Allingham, para.1). “‘Criticism’ – by T. P. Hall” relates to The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and its comments on class structure through the characters of Mr. Fairlie, Walter Hartright, and the servants. Continue reading

The Wrongful Institutionalization of People Within Private Lunatic Asylums in Victorian England

By B. H.

In Victorian England, insanity was deeply feared. The lunatic was seen as a violent, unpredictable person who threatened the very foundation of civility that was held in such high esteem during the nineteenth century. Asylums were the designated space for people believed to be insane, and confinement was considered to be the kindest option for them. By failing to place a relative who was thought to be insane into an asylum, families were opening up the possibilities of “immediate danger, disgraceful scenes, and exposures” (Monro 65). However, in 1858, the corruption within asylums was revealed in several stories of people being institutionalized for unethical reasons (The Position of a Lunatic”). These stories exposed how easy it was to have people committed, especially when they were placed within private asylums that were interested in profits, not cures or care.

The August 19, 1858 edition of The Times printed an editorial about three cases of wrongful confinement. The editor uses these accounts, which were filled with detailed descriptions of the greed and corruption that led to these confinements, to reveal just how “lax in the extreme” the regulations were regarding institutionalization. The editor demands a change in this system, arguing that only powerful reforms will reduce the likelihood of a sane person being wrongfully institutionalized (“The Position”). The reforms, he argued, Continue reading

We’re All a Little Insane: Asylums and Wrongful Committals in The Woman in White 

By A. Thompson

AT photo 1

Published on September 22, 1860 in All the Year Round, “Of Right Mind” comments on the changing attitudes toward insanity and the role of asylums in Victorian England. The article argues that most people have some form of mental health problem and that the ways in which society deals with mental health should appropriately reflect this. The author believes that “complete health of body is rare” and “it is that to the men whose minds are not whole, round, and perfect, we owe all the progress of the world” (“Of Right Mind” 557). The author believes lunatics to be those who are a danger to themselves or others and who “are incapable of managing their own affairs” (“Of Right Mind” 558). The latter condition he or she sees as a common trait among many men, not just among those who are deemed to be insane. The author subsequently advises caution in the use of an insanity plea in legal cases and prefers to see mental illness as occurring often and to varying degrees within society. The author also comments on the ability to remedy a “disease of the mind” with intervention during the earliest stages of affliction. On the subject of asylums to provide this early treatment, the author advocates a system that would create some institutions that cater to milder cases and others that cater to more severe cases. Finally, the author advocates “[dismissing]…the old vague horror of insanity” (“Of Right Mind” 559). Continue reading

Dickens Progressive Views on Insanity, Asylums and the publishing of The Woman in White

By KellieW

Star of Bethlehem

Over a century and a half ago, the two friends Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins often broached the subject of insanity and insane asylums in their writing. Collins regularly contributed to the family magazine Household Words, which was edited by Dickens. Later when Dickens broke away from Household Words and went on to found the magazine All The Year Round, Collins followed. During his time at Household Words, “Charles Dickens was uncomfortable writing open, transparent editorials about the current topics relating to mental illness, and about the institutions that housed the insane(Wynne 52). Dickens specifically avoided discussing hereditary mental illness because, as he said, he “shrink[s] from the responsibility of awakening so much slumbering fear and despair” (Wynne 53). Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens shared a concern of how to openly discuss insanity and asylums. Collins preceded Dickens in exposing those issues but eventually Dickens tackled the issues with openness and honesty. Continue reading

Wilkie Collins and Distrustful Italians: The Effect of Foreign Influence in Victorian Fiction

By A. Saxby


“Italian Distrust” was published in the November 26, 1859 issue of All the Year Round. The article opens by noting the generalized view of Italians as “bigoted, superstitious, ignorant, lazy, and regardless of truth” (“Distrust” 104). The author rectifies this unflattering view when he claims the latest events of the Risorgimento have redeemed the Italian people. As Alison Chapman states, the goals of the Risorgimento were the trio of “unification, liberty, and independence” (3). These ideals, championed by the British, shifted English opinion of the flighty Italians, since they were now focusing on obtaining their independence (“Distrust” 105). However, this positive view is short lived. The remaining bulk of the article presumes that the “bane and poison of Italian nature…is Distrust” and that this distrustful nature is the Italians’ downfall (105). “Universal Distrust” is a hindrance to the Italian way of life; the author notes that Italians believe anyone who forthrightly believes what another person says is a dupe (106). Continue reading

The Mystery and Obesity of Isidor Ottavio Baldassare Fosco

By C. Fokkens

While Wilkie Collins was in the early stages of writing The Woman in White, the 36th volume of Punch, published in 1859, included an untitled cartoon portraying a plump man speaking to an even plumper lady in a sitting room while an average-weighted maid passes in the background. The inscription below reads: Stout Gent. “Dear! Dear! So he has formed an attachment that you don’t approve of! Ah! Well, there’s always something. Depend upon it, Ma’am, there’s a skeleton somewhere in every house!” (Punch 101). Within this cartoon, there is a double entendre in which both meanings pertain to the themes of obesity and secrecy in Woman in White and their relation to the character of Count Fosco. Continue reading