Mental Health and Wellbeing in Literature

With exams and deadlines looming, this can be a busy time of year. Across the Bodleian Libraries, we’ve been thinking a lot about wellbeing and how we can offer support, from alpacas (and a llama!) and therapy dogs to walks and coffee mornings. Here at the EFL, we’ve done what we do best – we’ve turned to literature!

You might have noticed a new display in the library, exploring how mental health and wellbeing has been represented in literature since the nineteenth century. If you’ve not caught the display yet, read on to find out more about it. Or if you have seen the display and want to discover more about some of the topics for yourself, read to the end for a handy list detailing the resources used in putting the display together.

Madness in nineteenth-century literature

Madness was a common and popular theme in nineteenth-century literature. The field of psychology and understandings of mental health as we know them today were starting to emerge in this period, and novelists and poets could play just as important a role as scientists and philosophers in the formation of this emerging discipline.

Although it’s now an outdated term, for Victorian authors and readers ‘madness’ encompassed a whole range of different conditions which are today recognised as mental disorders and illnesses. Those suffering from madness – who were often (though not always) women – might withdraw from the world, waste away, or even be hidden and locked away. Whether they were locked up for their own good, for the safety of those around them, or because their condition and behaviours were shameful, is not always clear.

Not all nineteenth-century literatures of madness approached their theme in the same way. Here, we have two different examples: Romantic madness and Gothic madness.

Cover image: Selected Poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson. A slightly blurry black-and-white photo of a girl in a Victorian dress, looking at leaves and flowers on a treeThe Romantic view

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poems often feature a Romantic version of madness, with women who are isolated and trapped becoming dream-like and ethereal as a result of grief and suffering. Think of Mariana waiting in her ‘lonely, moated grange’ for someone who will never return, or the Lady of Shalott who can only watch reflections of the world from her isolated tower.

Cover image: The Clarendon Edition of the Novels of the Brontes. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre. Dark blue text on a plain light blue coverThe Gothic view

Charlotte Brontë takes a much more Gothic view of madness than Tennyson did. In Jane Eyre, Bertha – Mr Rochester’s first wife, who is kept under lock and key in the attic – embodies a far more menacing type of madness than Tennyson’s other-worldly women. She is a source of danger and horror, presenting a threat which can only be resolved through her death.

Illness in twentieth-century literature

In the twentieth century, attitudes toward mental illness in literature began to change. Gone was the madwoman in the attic and the Romantic woman sighing over lost loves – twentieth-century authors (and society) understood ‘madness’ very differently.

Part of the change was in the medium of writing about mental illness. Instead of poems or novels, there was a shift toward authors drawing on their own experiences of mental illness to inform their writing. That could sometimes be in the form of essays or memoirs, but it could also include autobiographical (or semi-autobiographical) fiction.

This shift meant twentieth-century literature about mental illness brought with it a more sympathetic approach to mental ill-health in literature. There was a recognition of the experience of the sufferer rather than just the reactions of those around them, and the causes of mental ill-health began to be explored.

Cover image: Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Dark blue broad paint brush strokes form the background, with the title and author name in a cream box on the upper left hand sideShellshock

Virginia Woolf struggled with mental illness, and her personal experiences of ill-health informed her writing. In Mrs Dalloway, this is reflected in Septimus, a veteran of WWI suffering from what would now be recognised as PTSD. Unlike many of her contemporaries (including medical professionals) who considered ‘shellshock’ to be weakness or cowardice, Woolf portrays Septimus sympathetically, revealing the callousness of a society and medical profession which failed him.

Cover image: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. In the centre is a drawing of a young woman with blonde hair; the background is dark blue; the author's name is in red text at the top, and the title in yellow text at the bottomSociety and expectations

Like Woolf, Sylvia Plath’s struggles with mental illness fed into her writing. Many readers see echoes of Plath’s own depressive episodes and hospitalisation in The Bell Jar. Other critics have suggested The Bell Jar speaks to more than Plath’s personal experiences, revealing the pressures resulting from the toxic culture of a society with contradictory and conflicting expectations of women.

Mental health in twenty-first century literature

Today, we are far more open about mental health than in years gone by. We’re still a long way from dismantling all taboos and stigma around mental health, but society as a whole is far more ready to acknowledge mental health issues – including in literature.

Cover image: Summer by Ali Smith. The top half of the cover has a yellow background, with the author's name in light yellow text and the title in black text. The bottom half of the cover is a drawing of a path running through green fields with trees either sideThis openness took on new importance during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns. The first ‘pandemic novels’ are only just starting to appear – Ali Smith’s Summer, published in 2020, was one of the first out of the gate. Summer is the last instalment of Smith’s rapidly-written Seasonal Quartet, a series which aimed to respond to events in as close to real-time as possible. In Summer, she explores how the pandemic increased the pre-existing fragmentation in her characters’ relationships with one another.

Cover image: Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers by Emma Smith. The cover has a dark blue background. There is a drawing of an open book surrounded by flames in the bottom centre. The author's name is centre top in orange text, the main title (Portable magic) underneath in white text, and the subheading in dark orange text beneath thatBooks are immensely powerful, as Emma Smith has revealed in Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers. Perhaps that’s why many consider books and literature to be uniquely placed to support people’s mental health. As the examples below show, both readers and authors can reap the benefits of literature …

Mental health in literature

In modern literature, we can see the development of the twentieth-century trend of writing about – and from – one’s own experiences. In Transcendent Kingdom, Ghana-born and Alabama-raised Yaa Gyasi explores the consequences of immigration for an entire family: from the brother who succumbs to addiction and the mother struggling with depression, to the father who cannot cope and returns home, all viewed through the eyes of Gifty, a high achieving yet repressed first-generation American.

Two cover images. On left: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. A green-and-pink background, with a white-and-pink allium motif. The author's name and title are in the centre. On the right: In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. The cover background is orange, with a photo of a woman with her arms over her face cut out into the shape of a house (a square with a triangle on top) in the middle. The title is at the top and the author's name at the bottom, both in black text

Carmen Maria Machado similarly writes from her own experiences. In the Dream House is Machado’s response to the abuse she herself suffered, an attempt to help others suffering abuse in same-sex relationships know that they are not alone. Through her innovative and experimental form and style, Machado catapults the reader into the fragmented and disorienting mental state that she experienced.

Mental health through literature

As well as representing mental health issues, literature can also be a way of supporting mental health, through what has been termed ‘bibliotherapy’. While studies can be inconclusive in terms of the concrete psychological benefits of bibliotherapy (have a look at the list below for some examples), the two writers here show through their memoirs how literature unequivocally helped them to deal with illness.

Yiyun Li writes about her struggles with depression and mental health, reflecting in Dear Friend on the importance of literature in the wake of her hospitalisation following suicide attempts. She describes reading as her means of survival, offering both recovery and discovery. Similarly, in Metamorphosis Robert Douglas-Fairhurst has written about how turning to literature helped him after he was diagnosed with MS. In literature, he found characters who shared his suffering, through whom he could understand and make sense of his illness.

Two cover images. On the left: Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li. A yellow-toned cover, with a drawing of a woman sitting on a bench reading a book in the bottom right corner. The title is in yellow text (top left) and the author's name in black text underneath. On the right: Metamorphosis by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. The cover has a plain white background. The title is at the top, mostly in black text with the first 'M' and the last 'S' highlighted in red. There is a picture of a bug on its back at the bottom centre, with the author's name in black text underneath

Hopefully you’ve found this whistle-stop tour of mental health in literature interesting. As promised, to end this post, here are some of the sources and resources used in creating this display, which you may like to use as a starting point to find out more about some of the topics covered  

Sources and Resources

Featured in the display (in order of appearance)

Alfred Lord Tennyson, Selected Poems (London, 2007).

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (Oxford, 1969). First published 1847.

Peter Melville Logan, Nerves & Narratives: A Cultural History of Hysteria in 19th-Century British Prose (Berkeley, 1997). Also available as an open access e-book.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (London, 2011). First published 1925.

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (London, 1966). First published 1963.

Elizabeth J. Donaldson (ed.), Literatures of Madness: Disability Studies and Mental Health (London, 2018).

Ali Smith, Summer (2020).

Emma Smith, Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers (2022).

Yaa Gyasi, Transcendent Kingdom (2020).

Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House (2020).

Yiyun Li, Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life (2018).

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Metamorphosis (2023).

Nineteenth Century

General Background

Chaney, Sarah, “A Hideous Torture on Himself”: Madness and Self-Mutilation in Victorian Literature’, in The Journal of Medical Humanities, 32:4 (2011), pp.279-289.

Pedlar, Valerie, The Most Dreadful Visitation: Male Madness in Victorian Fiction (Liverpool, 2006). Also available as an e-book.

Rylance, Rick, Victorian Psychology and British Culture 1850-1880 (Oxford, 2000).

Shemilt, Jane, ‘Tracing the portrayal of mental disorders in literature over time, through five books’, on CrimeReads (3 May 2022). Accessed 11 May 2023.

Romantic madness

Demoor, Marysa, ‘“His way is thro’ chaos and the bottomless and pathless”: The gender of madness in Alfred Tennyson’s poetry’, in Neophilologus, 86:2 (2002), pp.325-335.

Whitehead, James, Madness and the Romantic Poet: A Critical History (Oxford, 2017).

Gothic madness

Horner, Avril and Sue Zlosnik (eds.), Women and the Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion (Edinburgh, 2016). Also available as an e-book.

Sinha, Sunanda, ‘Gendering Madness and Doubling Disability in Jane Eyre’, in The Grove, 28 (2021), pp.111-126.

Twentieth Century

General background

Taylor, Steven J. and Alice Brumby (eds.), Healthy Minds in the Twentieth Century: In and Beyond the Asylum (Cham, 2020). [Open access]

Viusenco, Anca-Luisa, ‘The madness narrative, between the literary, the therapeutic and the political’, in Romanian Journal of English Studies, 10:1 (2013), pp.309-323.

Virginia Woolf

Gordon, Lyndall, ‘Woolf [née Stephen], (Adeline) Virginia’, in ODNB (23 September 2004). Accessed 12 May 2023.

Lohnes, Kate, ‘Mrs. Dalloway: novel by Woolf’, in Encyclopedia Britannica (27 July 2018). Accessed 12 May 2023.

Yu, Eileen Xiaoxi, ‘Indifference over Sympathy: Transcendental Communication in Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill and Mrs Dalloway’, in Virginia Woolf Miscellany, 89/90 (2016), pp.57-59.

Sylvia Plath

Churchwell, Sarah, ‘An introduction to The Bell Jar’, from British Library Discovering Literature: 20th & 21st Century (25 May 2016). Accessed 2 May 2023.

Hunt, Daniel and Ronald Carter, ‘Seeing through The Bell Jar: Investigating linguistic patterns of psychological disorder’, in Journal of Medical Humanities, 33 (2012), pp.27-39.

Marcarian, Hannah and Paul O. Wilkinson, ‘Sylvia Plath’s bell jar of depression: Descent and recovery’, in The British Journal of Psychiatry, 210:1 (2017), p.15.

Twenty-first century

The Books

Arbuthnot, Leaf, “It felt like a piece of bad news I should pass on to someone else” – Robert Douglas-Fairhurst on his MS diagnosis’, in The Spectator (25 February 2023). Accessed 16 May 2023.

Conrad, Peter, ‘Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers review – a spine-tingling adventure’, in The Observer (15 May 2022). Accessed 15 May 2023.

Lea, Richard, ‘Calloused, not callous: Healing the scars of displacement’, in TLS (21 March 2021). Accessed 15 May 2023.

Mbue, Imbolo, ‘Yiyun Li’s brave look at depression and the consoling power of literature’, from The Washington Post (16 February 2017). Accessed 3 May 2023.

Morrison, Blake, ‘Metamorphosis by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst review – books as therapy’, in The Guardian (17 February 2023). Accessed 16 May 2023.

Sagers, Flora, ‘Time on our hands in Ali Smith’s Summer’, in Moveable Type, 13 (2021), pp.102-105. [Open access]

Thomas-Corr, Johanna, ‘In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado – review’, in The Observer (5 January 2020). Accessed 15 May 2023.

Books as Bibliotherapy

Carney, J. et al., ‘Five studies evaluating the impact on mental health and mood of recalling, reading, and discussing fiction’, in PLoS ONE, 17:4(2022)

Feigel, Lara, ‘Inside story: the first pandemic novels have arrived, but are we ready for them?’, in The Guardian (27 November 2021). Accessed 15 May 2023.

Troscianko, Emily T., ‘Fiction-reading for good or ill: eating disorders, interpretation and the case for creative bibliotherapy research’, in Medical Humanities, 44:3 (2018), pp.201-211.

Wigand, Moritz E. et al., ‘Migration, Identity, and Threatened Mental Health: Examples from Contemporary Fiction’, in Transcultural Psychiatry, 56:5 (2019), pp.1076-1093.

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