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Women and Madness in Nineteenth-Century French Writing

Module Code: FR260
Module Name: Women and Madness in Nineteenth-Century French Writing
Module Credits: 15

The European nineteenth century is traditionally viewed as a period of great industrial, economic and medical progress that laid the foundations of society today in a very direct way. Before this time, 'madness' was not considered to be illness in the clinical sense, but gradually became medicalized from the early 1800s. This view permeated popular culture, producing many fascinating depictions of insanity, perversion and rebellion in art an literature. The cultural perception of women’s madness was inextricably bound up with the restrictive sex-role expectations of the era, raising important questions about the link between gender and pathology. We consider literary, medical and autobiographical representations of treacherous femmes fatales, incurable melancholia, hysteria, trauma, anorexia nervosa, and psychosis. Women who were artists, musicians, feminist activists, mothers, or simply those who fell outside society's restrictive 'norms', could find themselves subjected to the male medical gaze. Ultimately, we shall trace the extent to which the culturally perceived link between femininity and mental weakness endures today, in an era of apparent equality.


We examine three short fictional texts alongside excerpts of memoirs written by French women locked in asylums against their will, who all claimed to be sane. We also examine the earliest published clinical reports of anorexia nervosa (or anorexie hystérique in French). We will learn about the process of 'listening' to the voices of psychiatric patients, and consider the validity of their indictment of a medico-legal system that contained and marginalized them without really treating them. We will also ask whether 'madness' and 'reason' are polar opposites, or whether we may detect irrational thought in official medical discourse as well as perfectly reasonable assertions in the stories told by 'insane' or neurotic women.

This module may capture your interest if you took the First Year course 'Strategies for Reading French Texts' (FR118) and enjoyed discussing racial identity and alienation (in Condé); Gender and Sexuality; Foucault and Psychoanalysis.

Please note that some of these texts contain graphic depictions of eating disorders, racism, extreme mental distress/disorder and some allusions to sexual abuse. If you think you are likely to find engaging with such material in an academic context difficult then you would be well advised not to choose this module.

PLEASE NOTE: You will need to buy the texts below indicated with an * also available in the University bookshop.

Primary Texts

  • Madame de Duras, Ourika (1824): folioplus classiques edition. (for purchase)*
  • Balzac, 'Adieu' (1830): poche edition. (for purchase)*
  • Zola, Thérèse Raquin (1868): Flammarion edition. (for purchase)*
  • Madame Esquiron, Mémoire (1893): scan available via the online reading list.
  • Hersilie Rouy, Mémoires d'une alienee (1883): e-book on Internet Archive available via the online reading list.


Assessment Method:


50% - Assessed work (one essay of between 2,000 and 2,500 words in length)

50% - Formal examination


100% - One 4,000-4,500 word essay

Susannah Wilson

Dr Susannah Wilson

The exam paper code for this module is FR2LAX