My boyfriend refers to this as "the mad women section". It's kept in its lofty position in deference to my favourite of its members, Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, which gave oxygen and voice to perhaps the most famous mad woman in literature.
But perhaps we should begin with facts and figures. Elaine Showalter's The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 is a probing, fiercely intelligent study of female madness. "It is certainly possible," Showalter says in her introduction, "to see hysteria within the specific historical framework of the nineteenth century as an unconscious form of feminist protest." She goes on to deconstruct every preconception anyone might have about received female roles and psychology. I would like everyone to read this book.
R D Laing was the first to fight against institutionalisation as a form of social control and to establish a link between the family environment and mental health. His Sanity, Madness and the Family is a series of case studies of young female schizophrenics. It's fascinating, harrowing reading. More often than not, the patients sound reasonable and measured - and the families completely barking.
Wide Sargasso Sea aside, the genre is dominated by the novel-memoir. The best, for me, is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper. First published in 1892, it is a portrait of a young woman's gradual mental disintegration under the treatment of her doctor husband. She has just had a baby and is suffering from "nervous depression". Her husband confines her to a room with barred windows and heavily patterned wallpaper of "a smouldering unclean yellow". Although she craves stimulation and freedom to "work" (ie write - spot the autobiographical parallel), he refuses to let her do anything or see anyone. It's a chilling, terrifying, exhilarating read.
Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar is, of course, a must, as is Ariel - the newly published version as well as the old. Antonia White's Beyond the Glass, the final instalment in the "Frost in May" quartet, charts Clara Batchelor's struggle with the confines of returning to her parents' home after a divorce.
Where would a library of female madness be without Virago Press? In the 1980s they rescued and reprinted astonishing, lost novels like Emily Holmes Coleman's The Shutter of Snow and Jennifer Dawson's The Ha-Ha. Sadly, these are again out of print but you can get them, as I did, from internet bookfinders (abebooks.com is excellent).
Finally, it would be worth including The Book of Margery Kempe, one of the earliest known autobiographies. This medieval woman shares with us her marital troubles, the failure of her brewery business, her chats with God, and the post-natal madness she suffered after the birth of her first child.
Maggie O'Farrell's latest novel, `The Distance Between Us', is out now in paperback (Review pounds 6.99)Reuse content