Lectures and Lunatic Asylums

It has been pointed out to me that I haven’t blogged for quite a while now. There are good reasons for this; most of them involv20131211-120419 pm.jpge working. I last blogged before term started, in September, and lectures finish this week, so I’m back again. When I started my academic career, I wasn’t sure about the whole teaching thing. I wanted to research and write, and I found teaching a distraction, and not one which I particularly enjoyed some of the time. I suspect this is a common problem. Now, with a permanent job and a range of modules to teach, from first year introductions to prose and poetry to gender and literature and literature and psychology, I’m busier with my teaching than ever. I’m also developing a new module on Gothic literature. And, to my surprise, I’m really enjoying it all. Over the last few years, I’ve got to know some of my students quite well. I’ve had the opportunity to involve them in my research, to work on projects with them, and to see how they develop as they progress through their degree.
I’ve also found a range of ways to bring my own research interests into my lectures, and there are ways in which my teaching has influenced the direction my work has taken (including the development of The Virtual Theorist). Moreover, I have really enjoyed revisiting books I hadn’t read for years, and discussing them in seminars. To the Lighthouse has been a particular pleasure, for me and for some of my students (though I get the impression it was a bit of a headache for others!), as was Affinity. Sometimes a fresh perspective from a student can help me to see a book in a whole new light, and often makes me wish I was able to reset my mind and read a book as if it was the first time, witvirginia_woolf_to_the_lighthousehout preconceptions and a burden of ideas.
Teaching Victorian Literature and Psychology has been mostly delightful. Though it is a subject which deals with a lot of obscure psychological texts (mostly available on Google Books, thank goodness), students seem to enjoy looking at how mental illnesses were diagnosed and treated, and how psychological ideas, widely disseminated in eclectic Victorian culture, appear in a variety of forms in the literature of the period. One of my research interests is lunatic asylums in the nineteenth century, which has proved very useful for this module, and I hope that my enthusiasm for the subject has been communicated to my students. We’ve had some great discussions, including the idea that women’s mental health is improved by pregnancy, which ‘excites the ovaries’, and that too much studying makes your feet cold. The essays ask students to use psychological narratives of the period to explore psychological aspects of the texts we study, including Villette, The Turn of the Screw, Crime and Punishment and Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, and it’s fascinating to see the creative leaps and imaginative thought processes behind the work produced. So while I have been absent from blogging, I have been busy, and happy.

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Diagnosing Sydney Carton

I am teaching a third-year module on Victorian literature and psychology this year, and while I am preparing lectures and reflecting on the course material, I am reflecting on some issues which relate to how we can ‘diagnose’ historical figures and literary characters. Edgar Allan Poe has been retrospectively ‘diagnosed’ as a manic-depressive dipsomaniac; Elizabeth Siddal is assumed to have been suffering from anorexia, and Milton’s blindness, scholars now suggest, was due to glaucoma. Very likely, though how much this adds to our understanding of these figures is debatable. However, in examining literature and psychology, much of the material examines the authors’ interests in the new science of psychology (as well as pseudo-sciences such as phrenology and mesmerism). These interests are carried over into their literary works, and it’s surprising how different the texts seem when one reads them with an eye to psychological narratives.

This leads me to A Tale of Two Cities, and the ‘problem’ of Sydney Carton. Carton’s redemption of himself, and saving of Charles Darnay, has led critics to suggest that this is Dickens’s most spiritual novel, and the theme of resurrection is prominent. This implies, though, that Carton is a cardboard figure whose purpose is the reunion of the Darnay-Manette family, whereas I read Carton as a much more complex character (and Darnay as Forster’s ‘flat’ figure). He seems to diagnose himself: he admits to being a wastrel, who fritters away time and money, takes his own life as of no account, and has no hope for his future. While he might have succeeded in his profession, a lack of confidence and interest in it has caused him to become no more than another man’s drudge. His is a genuinely pitiful tale, and one for which we see no cause, until near the end of the novel where he recalls the early death of his parents, and for a moment we glimpse a sad and abandoned little boy.

We see Carton’s heart when he opens up to Lucie, admitting his hopeless love for her (which you can see in a hammy film version here); this episode and his kindness towards the poor seamstress in the tumbril seem to indicate a ‘good’ side to the ‘bad’ man. While he may be Darnay’s near-double, the situation is more complex than that he and Darnay represent the good and bad sides of a man (unlike, for example, in Poe’s ‘William Wilson’). Carton is a man who cannot save himself, and so, instead, saves another, thus ironically proving that in fact he was a man worth saving himself.

I am writing a kind of ‘case notes’ of Sydney Carton, looking at the work of contemporary writers on psychology such as Henry Maudsley, whose words ‘The sorrow which has no vent in tears may make other organs weep’ seem to have some relevance in the case of Carton, and G.H. Lewes. My questions, though, are these: can we ‘diagnose’ a literary figure as if s/he were a real person? How do we also take account of plot, of author, of literary conventions? I am hoping to answer these questions in a conference paper for the History and Philosophy of Psychology conference in 2013.

NB If you are interested in madness and literature, the Madness and Literature Network website is invaluable.