Tuesday 26 February 2019

‘Barking mad’... how Dickens led to our modern gaslighting men

From Charles Dickens’s treatment of his wife to the abuse of leading women now, little has changed

If not exactly a local saint, like Churchill or Florence Nightingale, Charles Dickens comes close enough for his reputation to have largely survived, to date, the documented mistreatment of his wife, Catherine, mother of his 10 children. She was publicly dumped by him, denigrated and separated from all but one of their children, having become fat and – to Dickens – dull.

Indeed, as the playwright Martin McDonagh demonstrated in a recent play, A Very Very Very Dark Matter, the reputational damage has been so scant that his hilarious reimagining of the creator of Tiny Tim – as a foulmouthed, lecherous fraud – came across as not so much counterfactual as wildly blasphemous.

It was natural, then, that last week’s revelation by John Bowen, professor of 19th century literature at the University of York that Dickens may have taken gaslighting his wife to the point of attempted false imprisonment would be received with dismay, even reluctance. “But he’s still a good man?” pleaded one prominent, male, interviewer, evidently eager to find some, any excuse, for a celebrated man who appears to have wanted to consign a sane woman, against her will, to a private asylum from which she would have been unlikely to escape.

“If you were in a private asylum, discharge rates were a mere 10-14%,” writes Sarah Wise, the author of Inconvenient People, Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England. But this, Bowen has now concluded from a cache of letters, is probably what Dickens intended for his wife. Before she died, he writes in the Times Literary Supplement, the dying Catherine confided in a friend, Edward Dutton Cook, who told another correspondent: “He even tried to shut her up in a lunatic asylum, poor thing! But bad as the law is in regard to proof of insanity he could not quite wrest it to his purpose.”

The new information accords, as Bowen says, with existing evidence that Dickens, once he was besotted with Ellen Ternan, deliberately circulated lies about his wife’s sanity, alluding to “a mental disorder under which she sometimes labours”. Responding to Bowen’s discovery, Dickens’s biographer Clare Tomalin told MailOnline: “I think during this period he was mad effectively and their lives were thrown into turmoil.”

Charles Dickens: ‘He even tried to shut her up in a lunatic asylum, poor thing!’ Photograph: traveler1116/Getty Images

Along with his possible insanity, any reputational readjustment must also take into account Dickens’s close friendship with a fellow gaslighter, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a powerful politician and novelist, during a period Wise says was “the high-water mark of the Victorian malicious lunacy incarceration phenomenon”.

After his (sane) estranged wife, Rosina, publicly denounced his “unexampled career of vice”, at a political hustings, Bulwer-Lytton secured the medical signatures needed to have her carried off, in 1858, to a private asylum, a nightmare she later described in A Blighted Life. (That same month, Bowen notes, the Dickenses separated.) “Never,” Rosina wrote, “was a more criminal or despotic Law passed than that which now enables a Husband to lock up his Wife in a Madhouse on the certificate of two medical men, who often in haste, frequently for a bribe, certify to madness where none exists.” Dickens, she describes as “that patent Humbug”.

A year after Rosina escaped, Dickens published, in his journal All the Year Round, Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, based on a true story of false incarceration in a Parisian asylum. The principal villain, Sir Percival Glyde, says of one victim: “She’s just mad enough to be shut up and just sane enough to ruin me when she’s at large.”

How substantial, if any, will be the damage to Dickens? Must he now shift into the creative subset, genius wife torturers, along with Philip Roth, Kingsley Amis, Picasso, Hemingway, Ted Hughes? His devotees could argue, against such an outcome, that Bulwer-Lytton got away with it. If, moreover, in the years since Dickens invented Catherine’s mental disorder health practitioners have become more reluctant to collaborate with controlling spouses, variations on gaslighting have definitely outlived him, in public as well as private life. While the responses to #MeToo, and The Archers storyline, have increased recognition of this form of abuse, crude public insinuations about the mental stability of prominent women remain, in contrast, permissible.

Were, for example, the intentions of Andrew Neil notably enlightened, when the BBC presenter described my colleague, the award-winning journalist Carole Cadwalladr, as the “mad cat woman from [The] Simpsons, Karol Kodswallop”? Neither the BBC nor Neil apologised for his misogyny towards Cadwalladr, nor, with this high-profile rehearsal of the “crazy cat lady” meme, for this misguided contribution (following his colleagues’ mockery of Carrie Gracie) to the gendered denigration of strong or combative women as mental, shrill, hysterical, stroppy, bloody difficult, insufficiently calm.

Already, the Tory recruits to the Independent Group have, being women, been described on social media as, variously, crazy, mental, barking mad, unhinged, hysterical, emotional, bonkers. At least one is, of course, a batshit crazy cat lady. A Mail writer adds, perhaps because Soubry ignores the Mail, that she drinks to excess.

If it’s impossible to know how women in public might behave if their conduct were not continually up for shaming by the craziness police, a look at unusual behaviour that is considered permissible and rational in their male peers maybe hints at what public gaslighting suppresses. The rarity of any equivalent female eccentricity tells its own story.

Under current, unspoken regulations, it would be impossible for a female politician to speak or dress or act with the affectation or disinhibition of, say, Jacob Rees-Mogg or Boris Johnson. The same, with his trusty shell-suit and sacks of allotment potatoes, his precious hoard of manhole covers and assorted jetsam, applies to that surely Dickensian figure, Jeremy Corbyn. There’s no need for mad-doctors, when a simple mention of crazy cat ladies will do the job.

(Source: The Guardian)

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