American Gothic: The Woman Who Escaped the Asylum

From LitHub:

America loves a story about capture and escape, especially, but not always, when it involves white women. Beginning with Mary Rowlandson’s bestselling tale of suffering and release from the Wampanoag Indians in the late 1600s, the captivity narrative has held our attention. Asylums provided a tantalizing setting. They were isolated, enclosed, and ruled by tyrants. From Elizabeth Stone’s 1841 tale of persecution at the McLean Asylum through Clarissa Lathrop’s account of the “secret institution” in 1890, asylums proved enduring locales for confinement and arenas for moral redemption. The most influential of these narratives, Elizabeth Packard’s chronicle of her stay at the Jacksonville State Hospital for the Insane, inspired changes in state laws in favor of women’s rights.

As capitalist relations allocated the middle-class man into the “sphere” of work, homes became centers of consumption, schools of virtue, and “havens” from the bustle of salaried life. Yet they also could be stifling prisons ruled by cruel patriarchs. As superintendents pushed the idea that asylums mimicked the home, the links between the two grew insidious. Americans well knew that looks could be deceiving.

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Two images guide this chapter. The first is the Woman in White, captured strikingly in Wilkie Collins’s 1860 novel of the same name. This ghostly figure is a solitary waif who is lured into an asylum for nefarious reasons and serves to relate dark messages of domestic peril. Her garments summon both the grave and the virginal marriage bed, drawing upon conflicted cultural ideals of “the angel in the house.” Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar wrote, “It is surely significant that doomed, magical, half-mad, or despairing women ranging from Hawthorne’s snow-image to Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, Dickens’s Miss Havisham, and Collins’s Anne Catherick all wear white.” The second image is the Angel in Black. She is the crusader for Christ, the religiously inspired reformer who understands America’s millennial mission. Dressed in serious black and personified by reformer Dorothea Dix, the Angel in Black manifests the woman’s role as caretaker and moral guardian. Both images are archetypes, two sides of a rubric of femininity that simultaneously empowered and smothered the 19th-century female.

To contextualize these images, it is necessary to briefly summarize what historians call the “cult of true womanhood.” This ideological vision exalted the home and praised feminine submissiveness and piety. Women were to be lovely and pure, covered in layers of clothes that shielded them from sex while simultaneously exaggerated their womanly curves. They were instructed to purchase the right goods and to raise their children to value hard work. The cult of true womanhood instilled women with moral power, emphasizing their role as nurturers and builders of democracy-loving, future citizens. Yet  it also kept them, according to Barbara Welter, “hostage” to the home. This is important. To escape from the asylum was, in a sense, to attempt an exit from a woman’s place.

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It is night on a country road. The moon is full, illuminating a “dark blue starless sky.” A man makes his way, walking stick in hand, blissfully imagining his new job as a tutor for a wealthy family. He is alone. Suddenly, a hand touches his shoulder. He grips his stick and whirls about. Before him stands “the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to toe in white garments.” Yet this “extraordinary apparition” is corporeal. She explains that she has been in an accident and needs to get to London. The man construes that she has been mistreated, and she concedes that she’s been “cruelly used and cruelly wronged.” After a short walk, the man puts the woman into a carriage and sends her off. Ten minutes later, two men in a carriage fly along the road, stopping in front of a police officer nearby. The man overhears them asking the officer if he has seen a woman dressed in white. The policeman says no, asking if there was something she has done. “Done!” replies one, “She has escaped from my Asylum. Don’t forget; a woman in white. Drive on.”

This scene is from The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Though composed by an Englishman, the novel was a huge hit in the States, selling some 126,000 copies following its serialization in Harper’s Weekly. Briefly told, the novel is about an art teacher named Walter Hartright who falls in love with his student, Laura Farlie, but is forced away because she is betrothed to another. Her fiancé, Sir Percival Glyde, is a greedy, dissolute aristocrat who aims for Laura’s money with the aid of the mysterious Count Fosco. The woman dressed in white is Anne Catherick. She is Laura’s illegitimate half-sister, sent off to an asylum to keep her silent about a “secret” she knows in regards to Glyde. She will later serve as a corpse body-double (when she dies of heart failure, Percival and Fosco switch her identity with Laura, placing the false “Anne Catherick” in an asylum and the real one in the grave). After all secrets are revealed, Walter is able to set things right. Percival is exposed as false gentry and dies horribly by fire; Fosco meets an untimely demise; and Walter and Laura live happily ever after.

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