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Victorian literature 'portrayed mental illness accurately'

20th April 2010

The portrayal of 'mad' heroines in Victorian literature offers a surprisingly accurate picture of mental illness, a BBC Radio 4 documentary has argued.

A selection of medical historians, psychiatrists and literary specialists told the Madwomen in the Attic programme that some authors drew on their own experiences when crafting characters afflicted by mental distress.

Anne Dinsdale, archivist at the Haworth Parsonage, singled out Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre, pointing out that when Charlotte Bronte was writing the novel her opium-addicted alcoholic brother Branwell was suffering from severe depression.

Dinesh Bhugra, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, also told the documentary that the illness of Anne Catherick in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White could be based on a real condition, but added that committing her to an asylum 'wasn't necessary'.

'They talk about her as being feeble-minded as a child and that she'd grow out of it - so perhaps a learning disability as we understand it,' he explained.

Orange Prize for Fiction chair Daisy Goodwin recently said that female authors should avoid focusing on depressing subjects, claiming that pleasure is a 'rather neglected element' in modern literature.

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