"The Woman in White" by Willkie Collins. Psychiatric care for women during the Victorian era in 19th century English literature

Essay, 2019

15 Pages, Grade: A


Marina Riggins

December 1, 2019

Exploring Victorian Psychiatric Care for Women Through the Lens of Willkie Collins’s

The Woman in White

In order to properly identify the problematic evolving around the psychiatric care for women during the 19th century in England, it is very important to explore socio-political factors and the actual mind set of the people in the Victorian era, their morals and values, and how these so-called asylums emerged in a greater scale. It was common to observe demonization of humans with disabilities during the medieval ages, where all forms of disabilities, were considered a punishment for sin by God. During Victorian England moral norms were highly valued and also perfection in the human body was adored. Sadly, disabled individuals were considered freaks and were mistreated in English society. These people were unwanted, often unproductive, and were routinely locked away in so-called asylums.

Psychiatric care for women during the Victorian era, as exercised in the lunatic asylums, was not medically based, but influenced by social norms and beliefs. This was also reflected in 19th century English literature. Thanks to developments in medical research and feminist uprisings, women decades later were able to get the appropriate treatment in specialized facilities and achieve much improved social standing. Themes involving the disposition of women in asylums were central to many of the sensational novels emerging during the 19 century. Among others Willkie Collins’ novel The Woman in White suggests another reason: stealing inheritance from women by abusing the lunacy law in England. The novel outlines very disturbing facts concerning the general treatment of women by society, where for a number of reasons, they could be easily “disposed of” in asylums, labeled as mental patients. In order to investigate this matter, it is helpful to understand the actual mindset of the Victorians.

Early Victorians adored the perfection of the human body, while Shu Yan observes in her article Freak Shows, Monstrous Women, and the Missing Link, that late Victorians were obsessed with bodily deformations. Freak shows where offered everywhere with a variety of disabled people were put on public display. The book The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin, had a great influence on them. The Victorians were in a state of shock. Freaks were locked away on many occasions and studied like animals or cruelly exposed for entertainment (Yan). It is of great importance to understand the mindset and historical context of the Victorian era in order to understand why asylums were so widespread. Everyone who did not fit within the perceived norms and values of Victorian society ended up in asylums. Women who had trouble fulfilling traditional gender roles as defined by Victorian society were medicated, and “policed” while locked up in asylums where they supposedly could improve their behavior. Fathers and husbands sent their wives and/or daughters away to such places to get fixed. Asylums were supposedly safe places for sick and troubled individuals, but in fact, they were effective prisons. Then to make matters worse, when prisons were over crowded, they would send excess prisoners to these very same asylums. Also, in other cases any unwanted family members could easily be sent away to these facilities. “The 19th Century is the time when buildings designed for disabled people 'boomed’. The industrial revolution had a dramatic impact on the English landscape. Towns, factories, railways and mills quickly replaced the ancient fields and villages. Outside many towns and cities, the high walls and chimneys of new country pauper lunatic asylums began to dominate the view” (Historic England). Furthermore, the author sadly notes, “as the asylums multiplied, the number of people certified as 'insane' soared. More and more people arrived, and fewer and fewer ever left”(Historic England). The fact that there was no differentiation between mental illnesses and other disabilities demonstrates again that medical diagnosis and treatment was not an important part of an asylum. One could end up committed to an asylum for a variety of non-medical reasons, including gender or class, where medical evaluation was incorrectly performed, with lack of knowledge or backup by proper medical explanation. A woman who rebelled against Victorian domesticity risked being declared insane and committed to an asylum. This was usually at her husband or father’s request, and she generally had no right to contest or appeal. Women were further disempowered by moral treatment once locked away. This cornerstone of Victorian psychiatry claimed male dominance was therapeutic. “The doctor ruled the asylum like a father ruled his family.” (Historic England) Inside of these facilities the picture was frightening. Susan Piddock offers in her dissertation a great overview and archeology of Victorian Era asylums, their rooms, food, and daily activities, and she traces the changes they underwent. Piddock also explains that a new medical profession evolved at this time, practiced only by male doctors at the time. It was known as “alienist,” or psychiatrist, and they believed that patients could be cured by “moral treatment.” Moral treatment was used almost exclusively on women and focused on how they could be fixed so they could return to normal society, properly perform their duties, and adhere to Victorian era social norms and beliefs. “In the mid to late eighteenth century there was a fundamental shift in the understanding of insanity (Scull 1979: 56) has characterized this shift as: “the emergence of therapeutic optimism and faith in the possibility of a cure.” This shift saw new modes of treatment being considered that were to dominate the early to mid-nineteenth century vision of the insane and insanity. These modes, in particular, addressed the mind of the afflicted person, and sought to re-educate them, allowing them to return to society. This was the basis of the new ‘moral’ therapy, which was characterized by an individual knowledge of the patient, and treatment based on kindness, humanity and reason (Piddock, 3). But another important note in her research is that when discussing matters within insane asylums one should be careful because residents of these facilities may have one point of view, which could be quite different from the point of view of an outsider.

In the novel The Woman in White Collins takes care to avoid judging methods and treatments. He does not put the matter up for debate. Furthermore, the story evolves around how women,who could end up in asylums, places generally meant for outcasts and people who were no longer wanted by their families, or who were removed from their homes such as Anne Cathrick. She was taken away from her mother’s house, but Laura, on the other hand, is not an outcast. Her sister, a very restless, ambitious, protective, and smart woman cannot be fooled by anyone. Laura had a chance for life outside of the asylum. The author tells the story of an evil aristocrat, Sir Percival Glyde, who try to keep Anne Catherick silent so that she will not reveal a secret she knows about him. On the other hand, he is trying to steal his wife Laura’s inheritance, by proclaiming her dead; she looks just like Anne, so with the ruse, he could steal all of her money. With the help of Count Fosco, Sir Percival manages to successfully abuse the lunacy laws of England and completes a body swap. The Woman in White shows the social oppression and treatment of women through this lens. Women were stripped of their identities by relatives or husbands and could be completely wiped out of society without a chance to defend themselves.

Collins communicates the concept of the Victorian asylum as a negative by using the word asylum 77 times. He doesn’t really delve into details of the nightmares that were going on in the asylums, but he succeeds in keeping the meaning of the word hovering over the novel, as a scary, uncanny place. He criticized the system of admitting patients where their medical evaluation was more focused on the rules and norms held by the Victorian society and households. Collins makes the asylum a ghostly presence in the novel. The fact that he does not go into much detail, but leaves it up to the reader’s imagination what asylums must have been like proves to be very effective. Collins focuses on the domestic sphere and depicts the very cruel treatment of women and the social oppression exercised upon them. He realizes that women had been kept silent for centuries, and that no one really cares about their thoughts, desires, or emotions.

Asylums were places of torture where doctors were all male and practiced “moral treatment.” Sadistic human experiments were performed in them, medical records could be easily falsified, extremely poor hygiene was practiced, and mental, neurological, intellectual, or physical disabilities were not differentiated. Asylums supposed to be sanctuaries for the sick, but they operated as correctional institutions where unwanted people could be easily disposed of used to generate revenue. Essentially, everyone that went into an asylum was lucky if they ever got out. Different disabilities were treated with the same medical methods "…exhibitions of madness were witnessed which are no longer to be found, because they were not the simple product of malady, but of malady aggravated by mis-management " (Showalter 26).

In order to get a true picture of asylums from the inside, it is helpful to consider Luise Hide’s research. She spent years researching Victorian asylums, looking at letters from patients - mostly women - who were released at some point during their lives. It creates a very chilling picture of these places. Brutal experiments were used as medical treatments, along with the so called “moral treatment,” where doctors had the power to do whatever they wished to women who were in their care. The lunatic asylum, was not based on medical knowledge, but rather, created to “police” women’s behavior. “Society in the industrial revolution,” Foucault argued, “grew increasingly intolerant of its nonproductive members and began to lock them away in institutions, where new psychological techniques of control called “moral treatments” were used to manipulate their behavior and turn them into productive citizens. This was hailed as a new era of humanitarianism.” Yet Foucalt contends that these methods, which were imposed through techniques of surveillance and control in asylums, were more insidious than and just as egregious as the shackles and chains that had been used to restrain lunatics in earlier years because they made patients unwittingly complicit in their own policing ” (Hide 5). English society was aware to an extent of what was going on inside asylum walls, but Willkie Collins left them as mysterious and eerie places. He spent more time on the debate about who should be admitted to such places. “Collins was not the first or the last novelist to terrorize his readers by exposing the malleability of definitions of sanity and insanity, and of the domestic conspiracies this could facilitate ” (Sweet xxx). The asylum where Anne was confined was somewhere away from London and was presented as a ghostly shade. It was real but it could not possibly be real.

In the very beginning of the novel Collins presents a woman in white, Anne who had escaped from an asylum and possessed a ghostly appearance. This almost unreal visage of a woman dressed all in white, is a metaphor used by the author to indicate Anne’s lack of sense of personal identity. In this way, Collins introduces the idea that asylums effectively stripped women of their individual sense of self and identity. “There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road – there, as if it had at that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from heaven – stood the figure of a solitary woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments ” (Collins 23). The author also makes an interesting observation when Laura comes out of the asylum. “A very good touch by Collins – innovative and accurate – is his portrayal of Laura as being changed both physically and mentally by her time at the asylum. The bewildering and disorientating ordeal of malicious incarceration could lead to the gradual erosion of personality and sense of self. Many real-life malicious incarceration plots worked in this way – place somebody sane and sensitive among the genuinely psychologically ill and watch as they too decline into what can be passed off as mental illness ” (Wise). There is no chance for these women to complain or to defend themselves, and that is why Willkie Collins’ novel was built as a court case for readers to be the judge over the unfolding events and to decide for themselves how easily crimes can be committed and the English Lunacy law tricked.


Excerpt out of 15 pages


"The Woman in White" by Willkie Collins. Psychiatric care for women during the Victorian era in 19th century English literature
Northern Arizona University  (College of Arts and Letters Nau)
ENG 645
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
collins, english, psychiatric, victorian, white, willkie, woman
Quote paper
Marina Riggins (Author), 2019, "The Woman in White" by Willkie Collins. Psychiatric care for women during the Victorian era in 19th century English literature, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/539363


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