Life size wax head of a melancholy insane woman, England, 1910-1940
Is this what ‘madness’ looks like? This lifelike wax head, with its stringy black hair and bulging glass eyes, was probably made in the 1930s for an exhibit at Henry Wellcome’s Historical Medical Museum. Records from the museum suggest that wax models of ‘madwomen’ and ‘madmen’ were displayed with replicas of manacles and restraints used in the early 1800s at Hanwell Asylum, West London. The wooden stick at the base of this wax head suggests that it did once sit atop a life-size body, now lost. To an audience of the 1930s, this woman’s face would have immediately called to mind the ‘madwoman in the attic’ – the violent and deranged female character who haunted the edges of many Victorian novels. Compare the head with this excerpt from Charlotte Brontë’s Gothic romance Jane Eyre, where the heroine of gets her first good look at the ‘lunatic’ wife of Mr. Rochester: ‘What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell.... but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.... The maniac bellowed: she parted her shaggy locks from her visage, and gazed wildly at her visitors.’ Some asylum physicians in Victorian England used the popular image of the dishevelled, animal-like, house-bound ‘madwoman’ to argue that women with mental illness should always be treated in asylums rather than kept at home.
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