Author(s): Timothy Gao (University of Oxford)
This paper examines representations of daydreaming in the correspondence, journals, and novels of Charlotte Brontë as a case study for the often hidden conflict between medical histories and first-person accounts of mental states. While the emerging field of nineteenth-century psychology diagnosed daydreaming as an intense and involuntary state of consciousness analogous to trances, sleep states, opiates, and mental illnesses, accounts by daydreamers themselves represented their daydreams as critical, rational, and conscious alternatives to dissatisfactions in their social and economic realities. By foregrounding this latter perspective in Brontë's letters and in Shirley, I argue for a re-evaluation of the relationship between the disciplinary authority of medical science and the historical individual's experience of their own mind, and for a more optimistic view of volition and autonomy, both in studies of Brontë and in medical humanities research more generally. This more hopeful reading of the literary and historical record enabled by an investigation of the common daydream also suggests the methodological value of shifting away from our existing focus on mental disorder and abnormality towards the significance of healthy, everyday, yet historically significant modes of consciousness.
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