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Bronte's Lunatic Ball: Constituting "A Very Safe Asylum" in Villette Piper Murray The novelist and physician shared similar ground in midVictorian culture ... : the novelist, newly released into the sphere ofsocial respectability, took on the role ofsocial sage, empowered to diagnose the moral and social ills ofthe society, while the physician emerged as the supreme arbiter ofmental and physiological health —Sally Shuttleworth Charlotte Bronte and Victorian Psychology Though many of us might have difficulty imagining some Victorian writers, like Charlotte Bronte, as "social sages," or even as especially "empowered" in their time, Sally Shuttleworth calls attention to an important consideration for any study ofmadness in Victorian literature: namely, the ideological connections between the medical and the literary, as well as the increasing obscurity ofthose connections as the two fields became more and more specialized and discursively distinct. As a time ofintense reform and professionalization in both ofthese fields, the Victorian period engendered not only a continuing conversation but also a discursive interdependence between the psychiatric and the literary; not only did literary creators borrow explicitly from medical discourses for their depictions of insanity, but medical discourses also often looked to literature for their case studies. In the nineteenth-century, "[p]sychiatry was just beginning to emerge as a science, [and] had not yet covered over its links with literature, or obscured its ideological assumptions under a 24volume 26 number 2 Bronte's Lunatic Ball cloak ofspecialized language" (Shuttleworth 13), a clear indication that the changing configuration ofinsanity and its diagnosis and treatment has important implications for the constitution ofthe novel's place in Victorian culture. In particular, a great deal of recent criticism has been aimed at discovering the discursive and ideological links between Charlotte Bronte's fiction and the psychiatric discourse popular at the time of her writing. Two of the most notable, perhaps, include Sally Shuttleworth's Charlotte Bronte and Victorian Psychology, which studies how discourses of mental health found their way into Bronte's fiction and how the novelist both resists and ultimately remains constrained by the ideologies ofthe emerging field ofVictorian psychiatry, and Helen Small's Love's Madness, which surveys the overlap between literary and psychiatric constructions ofthe love-mad woman and looks at how, paradoxically, the novel became one place in which the Victorian writer could resist the ideologies underlying both. Keeping in mind Small's warning that studies which focus on finding the ideological links between the medical and the literary often gloss over crucial "questions of . . . genre" (37), I would like to consider how Charlotte Bronte's Villette, as a novel, might simultaneously discover the contradictions inherent in the emerging Victorian asylum system and reenact them for its readers. In particular, I will focus on how Lucy's illness during the long vacation, as well as the recuperative "asylum" provided for her by the Brettons at La Terrasse , in many ways correspond to what Elaine Showalter calls "the triple cornerstones ofVictorian psychiatric theory and practice: moral insanity, moral management, and moral architecture" (29). And even at those times when, as we find in Villette, the literary seems intent on diverging from the psychiatric (as in Lucy's claim that she is "not quite sure what [her] nervous system is"), and vice-versa, the question remains whether such a divergence might not actually work to conceal common ideological assumptions (Small 35). In much the same way that John Bender suggests the novel might function as a cultural system like the modernized, rehabilitative prison, I want to suggest that the novel might also do the work of the new Victorian asylum, Victorian Review25 P. Murray an institution which depended on similar techniques ofsurveillance, simulation, and organization. I would like to focus on this phenomenon as it manifests itself in Charlotte Bronte's Villette and to conclude by speculating about how this novel might function generically as itselfa site of rehabilitation similar to that represented by the Victorian asylum. Perhaps the most remarkable shift in conceptions ofmental health during the Victorian period, and the one with which I am most concerned in relation to Villette, was what Showalter has called the "domestication of insanity" (28). Leading up to and following such new laws as the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 24-47
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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