For a variety of reasons, Ophelia was a compelling figure for many Victorian artists, writers, and doctors seeking to represent the madwoman. The English Pre-Raphaelites returned again and again to the subject of the drowning Ophelia. In the Royal Academy show of 1852, Arthur Hughes's entry shows a tiny waiflike creature--a sort of Tinker-Bell Ophelia--in a filmy white gown, perched on a tree trunk by a stream. The over-all effect is softened, sexless, and hazy, although the straw in her hair resembles a crown of thorns. Hughes's juxtaposition of childlike femininity and Christian martyrdom, however, was overpowered by John Everett Millais's strong painting of Ophelia. Millais's Ophelia is a sensuous siren at teh boundary betgween life and death.
A model for the mad Miss Havisham in Dickens's Great Expectations; for Tennyson's "Maud," for Wilkie Collins's "Woman in White," Ophelia became the prototype not only of the deranged woman in Victorian literature and art but also of the young female asylum patient. Victorian psychiatrists and superintendents of lunatic asylums were often enthusiasts of Shakespeare. They turned to his plays for models of mental aberration that could be applied to their clinical practice, and the case of Ophelia was one that seemed particularly apt. As J. C. Bucknill remarked in 1859, "Ophelia is the very type of a class of cases by no means uncommon. Every mental physician of moderately extensive experience must have seen many Ophelias. It is a copy from nature, after the fashion of the Pre-Raphaelite school. Conolly concurred. In his Study of Hamlet in 1863 he noted that even casual visitors to mental institutions could recognize an Ophelia in the wards: "The same young years, the same faded beauty, the same fantastic dress and interrupted song."Medical textbooks sometimes illustrated their discussions of female patients with sketches of Ophelia-like maidens; as one historian notes, the descriptions of these "Ophelias whose delicate and refined sensibilities had been wounded. . . and maddened by a disappointment in love" were often "affectingly drawn." And when young women in lunatic asylums did not willingly throw themselves into Ophelia-like poses, asylum superintendents with cameras imposed the conventional Ophelia costume, gesture, props, and expression upon them. Diamond dressed one young woman in a black shawl and placed a garland of wildflowers in her hair.
The figure of Ophelia eventually set the Victorian style for female insanity. In the 1860s Conolly urged actresses playing Ophelia to come to the asylum and study real madwomen. "It seems to be supposed," he protested, "that it is an easy task to play the part of a crazy girl, and that it is chiefly composed of singing and prettiness. The habitual courtesy, the partial rudeness of mental disorder, are things to be witnessed. . . . An actress, ambitious of something beyond cold imitation, might find the contemplation of such cases a not unprofitable study." In the 1870s, Ellen Terry took up his challenge. Yet when she visited a London asylum to get ideas for her role, she found the madwomen much "too theatrical" to teach her anything.
Sholwalter, Elaine. The Female Malady. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985. pages 90-92.