This week sees our third meeting this term (and ninth session overall, fact-fans) but before we get stuck into Lovecraft, here'sKate Gadsby Macesumming up our last session on Poe and Dickens and highlighting some of the points around which our conversation turned.
Nineteenth-Century Horrors: Marriage, Madness and the Middle-Class
Kate Gadsby Mace
Being buried alive is equated to marriage for the female characters as, in both stories , matrimony is inextricably linked to death. Egaeus only proposes because he pities Berenice’s slow decay – "bitterly lamenting her fallen and desolate condition, I called to mind that she had loved me long, and, in an evil moment, I spoke to her of marriage" - and the Madman’s young bride would rather die than marry him – "I should have known that the girl would rather have been placed, stiff and cold in a dull leaden coffin, than borne an envied bride to my rich, glittering house." The loss of freedom and life associated with being buried alive is directly linked to the loss of female identity involved in nineteenth-century marriage.
Egaeus is the last of a venerable line and his mental illness is both a physical consequence of generations of in-breeding, and a metaphor for the time-honoured tradition of mortmain. This legal terms – translating as ‘dead hand’ - refers to the inalienable ownership of real estate which is passed down through the generations. Egaeus’s identity is inseparable from his "hereditary halls." Born in the library, he is "connected with that chamber," rarely leaving it and consequently developing a disorder in which The realities of the world affected me as visions, and as visions only, while the wild ideas of the land of dreams became, in turn, […] the material of my every-day existence." His dislocation from reality is due to him stagnating in the "mansion of [his] fathers" in a physical manifestation of primogeniture.
Riches and property are also inherited by Dickens’s Madman, but he believes his true birthright is the insanity that is passed down through the male line of his family. Unlike Egaeus, the Madman enjoys his inheritance and takes great delight in the power of keeping his mental illness a secret from those around him – particularly in out-smarting lawyers and doctors. His madness is ambiguous however and never clearly defined: he suffers from megalomania which causes delusional fantasies – "see how this iron bar bends beneath my furious wrench. I could snap it like a twig" – but he is logical enough to plan his wife’s murder and recognise the obstacles in escaping from the asylum. We questioned the validity of his madness and, most importantly, whether it is hereditary or the result of opium addiction, syphilis or absinthe abuse from his younger days when he "rioted in pleasures."
Excess is also associated with Berenice. She is originally described as "overflowing with energy," but her illness brings on "the total wreck of her fair and gentle life" and transforms her into an uncanny doppelganger: "Her emaciation was excessive, and not one vestige of the former being lurked in any single line of the contour." She begins as one extreme and ends as the other, but throughout the story she is always an Other. "Agile" and "graceful," "roaming carelessly through life," Berenice is associated in Egaeus’s mind with sylphs, naiads and the abstract: "I had seen her - not as the living and breathing Berenice, but as the Berenice of a dream; not as a being of the earth, earthy, but as the abstraction of such a being." Her insubstantial presence in the narrative emphasises his eventual obsession with her teeth as physical material objects; solid, visible, and palpable.
Neither story directly references the supernatural, but both female protagonists are spectral figures haunting the texts. As we discussed, Berenice is represented as a mythical creature that drifts in and out of Egaeus’s library and through the narrative as it progresses. Similarly, the Madman’s wife is disconnected from the story; nameless, passive and silent. The only sounds she makes – whispering her lover’s name and screaming for help – are echoed through the Madman’s narrative. Her only physical influence on the text is focalised through her eyes. She casts a ‘spell’ over the Madman when he tries to kill her – "Her eyes were fixed on mine. I know not how it was, but they cowed and frightened me; and I quailed beneath them" – and, once dead, she appears to him as a ghostly figure with "eyes that fix their gaze on me, and never wink or close." His description of her is centred on her "glassed bright" eyes and the narrative ends with the "silent figure in its old corner […] watching my gambols on my straw bed." In both stories the women are reduced to individual physical features which become the obsession of the men’s madness. They are both beautiful objects that are possessed, posed, displayed and ultimately disposed of.
Integral to the stories, the women provide foils for the protagonists: Egaeus and Berenice are opposed from the start – "differently we grew" – and the wife’s "slight and wasted figure" provides a contrast to the Madman’s maniacal strength and physicality. We observed that their role as women is strangely distorted however. Egaeus and Berenice are cousins and it is safe to assume that they are destined to marry and continue the lineage, but he makes it clear that "feelings with me, had never been of the heart, and my passions always were of the mind." His attraction to her is purely analytical and not physical, thus removing sexuality from their relationship. Meanwhile, Dickens’s Madman marries his young bride but knows that she doesn’t love him: "She had never liked me; I had never thought she did." When he discovers that she loves another, however, he is consumed with jealously. Interestingly, he resolves to kill her because "she might give birth to some ill-fated being, destined to hand down madness to its offspring," but this fear did not prevent him from consummating their marriage. Their physical role as women within the natives is complicated by their partners’ madness.
Class issues are also present in the texts. Egaeus is clearly aristocratic, but the social position of Dickens’s characters is more ambiguous. The Madman inherits an estate, but it is not clear if he has earned his money through business ventures and investment – "Riches became mine, wealth poured in upon me." Equally, the family that he marries into is poor but we inferred that they were ‘old money’ having fallen upon hard times. One of the brothers has certainly purchased a commission – "This man had a commission in the army -- a commission, purchased with my money, and his sister's misery" – but we disagreed as to whether this implied he was middle-class. Certainly the Madman disdains lawyers and doctors who have earned their own wealth – "great men who rolled up to my door in easy carriages, with fine horses and gaudy servants" – but it isn’t made clear if he is from the aristocracy himself, particularly as the house his father died in is referred to simply as "the old house."
Everyone seemed to enjoy reading and comparing these two narratives. They are a natural match for one another, both being first-hand accounts from men who believe themselves to be suffering from madness and who’s partners suffer on that account. The narrative tone that Poe and Dickens employ differs – one is almost poetic while the other is bold and physical – which produces two very different accounts of madness. "Berenice" was published in 1835 and the The Pickwick Papers in 1836: allowing both stories to address contemporary anxieties surrounding death and madness; two topics that both terrified and fascinated Victorians. As Melanie Richmond observes, such stories "tapped directly into the dark veins of a generation and played on their widespread morbidity" – a morbidity that still grips us now and manifests in our ghoulish enthralment to the horrors of gothic fiction.
Edgar Allan Poe. "Berenice" (1835). Gothic Short Stories, Ed. David Blair.
London: Wordsworth Editions, 2002. 52-59.
Charles Dickens. "A Madman’s Manuscript" (1836). Gothic Short Stories. Ed. David Blair.
London: Wordsworth Editions, 2002. 60-67.
Melanie Richmond. "Archaeologia Victoriana: the Archaeology of the Victorian Funeral." The Loved Body’s Corruption: Archaeological Contributions to the Study of Human Mortality, Ed. Jane Downes and Tony Pollard. Glasgow: Cruithne Press, 1999. 145-158.
Kate Gadsby Mace is a PhD student in the School of English, working on late-eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Gothic fictions with a domestic setting. Do you see what she did there?