Helena Ifill
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Basil and No Name
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Basil’s Robert Mannion, and No Name’s Magdalen Vanstone are both subject to monomaniacal impulses. In Basil, Collins draws on early-nineteenth-century theories of insanity and moral management, promoted by “alienists” such as John Connolly and J. C. Prichard, which warned of domination by unruly passions. Mannion allows himself to be swept away by his uncontrolled emotions, and therefore contributes to his own mental deterioration. In No Name, Collins makes use of mid-Victorian theories of the will, developed by mental physiologists such as William Benjamin Carpenter, to depict Magdalen as someone who has not been trained to manage her willpower correctly and is therefore overwhelmed by a monomaniacal urge when faced with sudden tragedy. Unlike Mannion, Magdalen also possesses intrinsic reserves of moral strength and endures a series of internal conflicts between her monomania and her ‘better’ nature. In his contemplation of the different aspects which comprise the individual personality, Collis asserts (and so counters mid-century associationist psychology as propounded by men like Alexander Bain) that we are not ‘born with dispositions like blank sheets of paper’, but also insists that our inborn traits may be cultivated for better or for worse.

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Theories of nature and nurture in Victorian sensation fiction


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