Victorian Literature Psychology
Andrew Scott Mangham
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0129


The development of psychology as a distinct discipline constituted one of science’s major success stories in the 19th century. A full century’s worth of sophisticated study and discussion of the human mind took place before Sigmund Freud, all of which came to bear on the Austrian neurologist’s seminal contributions. At the start of the 19th century, it was not uncommon for a mental patient to be treated by a relatively untrained physician and to be restrained by locks and chains. By the fin de siècle, psychology had developed a more complex and nuanced understanding of the mind and the brain. Diagnostic labels such as “hysteria,” “neurasthenia,” and “hypochondria,” problematic though they often proved to be, meant that the simplistic thinking of early psychiatry had been replaced with clinical approaches to mental disturbance. Foremost among the more humane and sophisticated accounts of psychiatry was the invention of moral management (the belief that small acts of employment were more beneficial to psychiatric patients than cold douches, chains, and confinement) and the rise of psychosomatic medicine, namely the notion that intricate channels of communication existed between mind and body. Thanks to the pioneering writings of men such as John Conolly, Henry Maudsley, William Carpenter, John Abercrombie, and G. H. Lewes, to name only a few, psychology developed a richer concept of the nature of dreams, personality, memory, nervous disorder, and thinking.

General Overviews

For the best historical accounts of the rise of psychology, Oppenheim 1991, Rylance 2000, and Taylor and Shuttleworth 2003 are excellent sources. The latter work is an invaluable anthology of psychological texts (primarily British) from 1830 to 1890. Also worth a look are the following histories of psychology: Arens 1989, which concentrates on German contributions to the discipline; Danzinger 1990, which focuses mainly on the development of psychological methodology; Donnelly 1983, which considers the theme of moral management and asylum culture; and two collections of essays on broad issues relating to psychology, Porter and Shepherd 1985–1988 and Woodward and Ash 1982.

  • Arens, Katherine. Structures of Knowing: Psychologies of the Nineteenth Century. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer, 1989.

    A history of “conceptual psychology,” this book’s primary sources are all in German. The author claims that conceptual psychology underlies many of the scientific developments of the 19th century.

  • Danzinger, Kurt. Constructing the Subject: The Historical Origins of Psychological Research. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511524059

    A fascinating book that traces the birth of psychological methodology to the 19th century and situates it as emerging from a trend, in that period, of looking inward—for questioning motivations, feelings, and structures of thought.

  • Donnelly, Michael. Managing the Mind: A Study of Psychology in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain. London: Tavistock, 1983.

    As the title suggests, Donnelly’s study focuses on mental management, or “moral management,” and the asylum movement as a means of launching a complex and interesting analysis of the intersecting developments that led to the rise of psychiatry in the 19th century.

  • Oppenheim, Janet. “Shattered Nerves”: Doctors, Patients, and Depression in Victorian England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195057812.001.0001

    An important account of the relationship between psychiatrists and their patients in the Victorian period. Oppenheim concentrates on nervous breakdown and the period’s attempt to understand, prevent, and treat it.

  • Porter, Roy, and Michael Shepherd, eds. The Anatomy of Madness: Essays in the History of Psychiatry. London: Tavistock, 1985–1988.

    Based on a series of talks delivered at the Wellcome Trust in London, this three-volume book offers a modern and interesting interpretation of the history of psychiatry. The issues discussed vary widely, but this is a useful starting point for many issues relating to the development of psychological ideas.

  • Rylance, Rick. Victorian Psychology and British Culture, 1850–1880. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198122838.001.0001

    A comprehensive and well-crafted history of psychology concentrating on the latter half of the 19th century. Rylance reads the development of the discipline through the progress of some of its main practitioners.

  • Taylor, Jenny Bourne, and Sally Shuttleworth, eds. Embodied Selves: An Anthology of Psychological Texts, 1830–1890. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    An impressive and extremely useful anthology. Richly annotated, this collection covers all the main areas of psychological research during the Victorian period.

  • Woodward, William R., and Michell G. Ash. The Problematic Science: Psychology in Nineteenth-Century Thought. New York. Praeger, 1982.

    The aim of this book is to challenge the assumption that psychology emerged in late-19th-century Germany mainly through clinical methods. Although the history of psychology has moved on a good deal since 1982, this is still a worthy and fascinating collection of essays.

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