The Natural Asylum and the Feminisation of Madness in Early Nineteenth-Century France

Christie Margrave

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


Showalter’s statement that ‘[t]he victimized madwoman became almost a cult figure for the Romantics’ is as true for France as for Britain. Yet little scholarly work exists documenting either the portrayal of madness as a feminine concept in French early nineteenth-century fiction, or the links that this portrayal shares with the medical findings and historical events regarding the treatment of insanity in France at the time. Through an analysis of Mme de Krüdener’s Valérie (1803) and Mme Cottin’s Malvina (1801) and Mathilde (1805), coupled with close examination of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French medical texts, this paper fills a part of this void.
Cottin presents madness as a form of active feminine protest against the dominant, patriarchal society which subordinates women. Moreover, she shows that it is at the heart of the natural world that her heroines rediscover their protesting voice. Krüdener argues that such a protest can also be undertaken by men suffering a crisis of their masculine identity, and that turning to ‘feminine’ hysteria is a means of rejecting the virile masculine image expected of and imposed on men. Krüdener shows the Œdipal desire of the Romantic hero turning to the matriarchal world of Mother Nature as a replacement for the shunned patriarchal world.
The paper also addresses women’s novelistic contributions to the discussions of their day regarding the growing concern over how insanity should be treated. In Cottin’s novels, whilst the wild nature of the desert represents the tortuous institutions of punishment so common in the Ancien Régime, the tamed nature of a domestic garden is representative of the new, caring space of treatment advocated by the physician Pinel. The latter space is shown to cure the mad patient, whilst the former only compounds the illness.
Ultimately, this paper proves that it is through their use and portrayal of the natural world (associated with women throughout the centuries) that early nineteenth-century French female novelists convey their often controversial viewpoints on the causes, treatment and feminisation of madness.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 2015


  • women's writing
  • madness
  • French literature
  • nineteenth century

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