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The very things that provided a Victorian man’s status, his self worth, and his identity could also lead him to lose his mind. This paradox is at the heart of this essay. Men breaking down under the pressure of hard work was disruptive in a society that was dependent on that overwork. This idea preoccupied Victorians, who worried that the pace of modern life could lead to broken nerves, low spirits, nervous collapse, and even suicide. Both doctors and sufferers believed that overtaxing one’s brain could lead to a complete mental breakdown requiring institutionalization. As asylums filled up with incurable patients from the 1870s onwards, the fear of madness was at its height.

Neurasthenia held such cultural power and fascination only because it touched on this deeper fear of genuine madness. Men’s madness, and the fear of breaking down, were part of larger public conversations Victorians had about masculinity and mental power and need to be placed prominently in discussions about fin-de-siècle anxieties. Tracing both medical and popular understandings of men’s mental breakdowns, this essay examines asylum records, patient narratives, doctors’ writings, and works of fiction. It places men at the centre of conversations about lunacy in the nineteenth century, and highlights how the spectre of madness connects to larger conversations about degeneration and modern life, as well as fears about the state of Victorian manhood.


This is a pre-copyedited, author-produced version of an article accepted for publication in Journal of Victorian Culture following peer review. The version of record, Amy Milne-Smith, Work and Madness: Overworked Men and Fears of Degeneration, 1860s–1910s, Journal of Victorian Culture, Volume 24, Issue 2, April 2019, Pages 159–178, is available online at: or

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