A method to the madness? Representations of female psychological disorder in Irish women’s fiction 1878-1914

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Regan, Éadaoin
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University College Cork
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This thesis investigates representations of female psychological disorders in selected Irish women’s fiction published between 1878 and 1914, focusing on how these stories challenge contemporary perceptions of the cause and cure of mental illness. The authors included in this project are as follows: George Egerton, Edith Somerville and Martin Ross, Richard Dehan, Sarah Grand, Bithia Mary (B.M.) Croker, and Charlotte Riddell. I propose that these stories point to contemporary women’s awareness of their mental illnesses or what society perceived these to be. This includes a discussion of Freudian analysis’ wide-ranging list of hysterical symptoms: general illness, fantasies, or dreams. It also explores various instances of self-harm such as anorexia, alcoholism, and suicide. With reference to contemporary psychoanalytic theories on hysteria, I offer a correction to cultural perceptions of women’s mental health issues during the fin de siécle. For some of the texts explored, these Irish women writers were anticipating psychoanalytic interpretations of wider women’s experiences or at the very least responding to the culture which formed psychoanalysis. Furthermore, I argue that in contrast to prevailing perceptions of the time, the texts suggest that neuroses are not solely caused by repressed sexuality. This thesis contributes to a re-evaluation of fin de siècle Irish women’s writing, thus building upon the research carried out in this area over the past three decades. It does so by employing critical readings of nineteenth-century Irish women’s writing but through an alternative methodology, one that engages with long-neglected Spielreinian, Horneyan, or Jungian theories. This thesis therefore explores fictional representations of fin de siècle women’s mental illness using psychoanalysis as a comparative study of the impact domestic, social, and cultural had on neurotic behaviour. This thesis also engages with the implications of the geographical proximity of Ireland to the centre of the British Empire, which necessitated the former’s adherence to the latter’s laws and social expectations. For Irish women, like their English counterparts, there was an emphasis on women’s integral roles within the Empire as daughters, wives, and mothers. While the New Woman movement stretched beyond Ireland and Britain, differences in legal and cultural ramifications means that the experiences represented in these fictional texts incorporate complex contemporary tensions which result in psychological disorder. Though thesis focuses on women’s experiences during the period, where relevant, it also examines the role of Irish culture and its impact on the selected fictional instances of madness. The British Empire’s colonisation efforts in Ireland had significant impact on the island and are inextricable from discussions of its sexuality, maternity, culture, individuality, and women’s mental illness. Similarly, psychoanalysis was not created in a vacuum. If Freud’s case studies can be deemed an archive of their time, then the selected Irish women’s writing can be seen as somewhat of a counter-archive. As argued throughout this thesis, the selected fiction deconstructs contemporary perceptions of a universal Irish women’s experience during this period. It therefore suggests Irish women had a far more intricate understanding of their mental illness, and society’s impact on it, than their contemporaries acknowledged.
Irish writers , Irish fiction , Irish women writers , New woman , Madness , Mental health , Mental illness , Hysteria , Neurosis , Neuroses , Psychoanalysis , Carl Jung , Sigmund Freud , Sabina Spielrein , Karen Horney , Irish culture , Fin de siecle , Postcolonial British empire
Regan, É. 2022. A method to the madness? Representations of female psychological disorder in Irish women’s fiction 1878-1914. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.