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Saturday, 4 January 2014

Inconvenient people and how to find them: tales from the Victorian lunacy panics (Archives for London seminar, December 2013)


For the December Archives for London seminar, Sarah Wise gave a talk on Victorian lunacy, and the people who were wrongly incarcerated.  She seemed keen to dispel the myth that it was mainly women who suffered this – in fact, it was men who were most vulnerable to being wrongly incarcerated by greedy relatives wanting to get hold of their wealth, because it was men who were more likely to be in control of the finances.

It’s hardly surprising that people took advantage of the lax criteria for being put in asylums. There was no change to the process between 1828 and 1890. Any two medical men or apothecaries had to decide the patient was of unsound mind. No psychiatric qualifications were required. It could be quite a malicious act – Rosina Bulwer-Lytton was victim to this when her husband Edward wanted rid of her. It’s possible to see the plotting develop reading letters between Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Lord Shaftesbury, and John Forster. It’s hardly surprising that there was much distrust of the ‘mad doctors’. However, in some instances, women used the laws to their advantage as a way of getting rid of drunk or violent husbands. There was much more privacy with such issues than with attempting to get a divorce, and so it was a lot less damaging to their reputation to have their husbands sent to an asylum.

In researching her book Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England, Wise says she wanted the mix of men and women in the case studies to be roughly even, and it quickly became apparent that this was a fair reflection of events. Why then, is it so often assumed that women were the more common victim of false incarceration? She suggests that it has a lot to do with the press at the time, and the novels that are still read today. The most famous obviously being Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre. Wise points out, however, that it would have been read differently at the time of publication. Whereas now it seems cruel to have Bertha locked up at Thornfield Hall, in actuality, it was probably the kindest treatment. Mr Rochester employed an experienced, compassionate carer for her - much preferable to the treatment in many of the asylums.

Wise closed with a few words about the way in which she’d conducted her research for the book, and brought up issues around digitization, a topic very relevant in archiving at the moment. Although digitization makes a lot more sources readily available, she did point out that not reading the documents in their original context can pose problems, as well as the potential to miss important items because you’re not there physically going through a box of documents.

I am fascinated by the treatment of the mentally ill in the nineteenth century, and the ways in which the laws were used for corrupt uses, and this seminar was enlightening and thought provoking. I plan to pick up a copy of Inconvenient People, as I’ve no doubt it will be a great read.

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