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The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and…
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The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1890-1980 (1985)

by Elaine Showalter

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Elaine Showlater's The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 is a brilliant discussion of the perception and treatment of mental illness, focusing on the female perspective. Showalter's research is thorough, and her presentation of information shows a care and attentiveness to her material that increases the confidence of the reader. Drawing on a cultural sangria of material, The Female Malady traces the systematic (and often blundering) treatment of mental disease, focusing on how women influenced the establishment as not only patients, but commentators in the form of employees and writers, activists and advocates.

The majority of the text focuses on the plight of the Victorian woman, and how doctors and the medical profession responded to what they perceived as the nervous energy attached to the rising discontent of women as a gendered class. However, the text does not end there, and moves on to discuss everything from evolving practices in institutions, the feminization of mental disease, the presence and treatment of male patients, psychoanalysis, and the feminist therapy movement. Showalter skillfully blends historical observation and study with careful literary analysis to give her reader and understanding of the material from several angles and increase their awareness of the historical implications of insanity not just for the evolution of women, but for the sciences and literary fields alike. At just 250 pages, The Female Malady is by no means a complete history, but proves to be a useful volume on its own, especially for those considering cultural and literary implications of insanity beyond the straight-forward studies of psychology or psychoanalytic theory. ( )
1 vote Luxx | Jul 8, 2009 |
I thought it was great, very interesting, if dated (its from 1985, I think). A good example of popular scholarship & I liked how it presents debates rather than closing them off. I ended up with 15 new additions to my TBR list from the novels Showalter references alone! (Part of the sudden rush to read West and Woolf; also, it coincided nicely with my new desire to learn more about WW1, since so much of it focused on WW1-era mental health issues.)

One of the most striking things about this book was Showalter's illustration of the relationship between medicine & art. Doctors diagnosed & labelled certain types of madwomen according to types they found in literature - the most obvious being Shakespeare's Ophelia, who came to represent a Romantic fantasy of the young, beautiful, lovestruck, suicidal madwoman. Showalter also identifies the "Crazy Jane" - a poor servant girl abandoned by her lover - who originated with Gothic novelist Matthew Lewis and "Lucy" - a crazed, violent figure who originated in Sir Walter Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor. In all cases, the source of the woman's madness is located in her thwarted love for some man, but that's another issue.

Doctors turned to artists & later to photographers to create representations of their female patients in the images of these types of madwomen - regardless of what these women actually looked like - as part of their clinical practice. These images were, in turn, used to study the flavors of madness and diagnose new cases. These images is that they are all very stylized - doctors and photographers dressed, decorated, posed, and accessorized patients in certain ways, sometimes with the compliance of the patients themselves, other times without. These images became representative of the medical "truth" about madness even though they were themselves a fiction.

These medical texts then fed back into cultural representations of madness, lending them the weight of "science". Jane Eyre's Bertha Mason Rochester is a classic "Lucy", representing the danger of women's sexuality & madness caused by lost love. John Conolly - a Victorian doctor who radically overhauled the treatment of madness - was in turn influenced by Bronte's portrait of Bertha when he argued that home care and restraining of patients had led to a bad end for both the madwoman and the household in which she was confined. And so on and so on. ( )
  fannyprice | May 2, 2009 |
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On May 1, 1851, Queen Victoria opened the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, an event, most historians agree, which also inaugurated the golden age of Victorianism, the optimistic and confident period that prevailed for the next twenty years.
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In this informative, timely and often harrowing study, Elaine Showalter demonstrates how cultural ideas about "proper" feminine behaviour have shaped the definition and treatment of female insanity for 150 years, and given mental disorder in women specifically sexual connotations. Along with vivid portraits of the men who dominated psychiatry, and descriptions of the therapeutic practices that were used to bring women "to their senses," she draws on diaries and narratives by inmates, and fiction from Mary Wollstonecraft to Doris Lessing, to supply a cultural perspective usually missing from studies of mental illness.

Highly original and beautifully written, The Female Malady is a vital counter-interpretation of madness in women, showing how it is a consequence of, rather than a deviation from, the traditional female role.
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A vital counter-interpretation of madness in women, showing how it is often a consequence of, rather than a deviation from, the traditional female role.

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