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An Inconvenient Nuance 1

Here is the first instalment of the Archivist’s promised review of Inconvenient People: Lunacy Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England.

Inconvenient People by Sarah Wise is an important new work of non-fiction, with one principal virtue and one major oversight. It is important in that it retells, in an accessible manner, a set of stories that once enjoyed a high public profile, but have now been all but forgotten: those of people who (with a considerable degree of success) challenged their detention under the lunacy laws of Victorian England.

Although Bethlem only features incidentally in this work, Wise might as well have conceived it as a commentary on some throwaway lines in the Hospital’s recent scholarly history (lines which have an eerily contemporary ring to them):

“Zealous mid-Victorians loved to bring ‘evils’ to light, usually through ‘scandals’. In the 1850s public opinion, stirred by a lively press, focused on a wide range of institutional and governmental ‘abuses’. The rhetoric could be overpowering.”1

Authorial quotation marks notwithstanding, the abuses were real enough, as illustrated by the cases Wise highlights, sometimes in reliance on already-published (often highly-charged) accounts, at other times supported by her archival digging into unpublished reports and correspondence. So, too, were the scandals. The fact that abuses retained the power to shock once found out, and at length precipitated changes in legislation and governance, might be taken as an indication that, however messy the English mental health regime of the nineteenth century was, it was at least capable of correction, perhaps even of improvement. By her narrative style, Wise invites her readers to consider the minutiae, the ins and outs, the ambiguities of the stories she tells: those of Edward Bywater, Edward Peithman, Louisa Nottidge, Catherine Cumming, Louisa Lowe and Georgina Weldon among others. Acceptance of this invitation involves giving up any notion of Victorian lunacy provision as constituting an unremitting reign of terror, simply sustained by greed and neglect, sadism and Schadenfreude. This reminder of historical nuance makes Inconvenient People important, as has already been noted; but what of its principal strength, and how does it disappoint?

In the opening lines of the book’s preface, Sarah Wise highlights what I consider to be the principal virtue of her book, at the same time (unwittingly) providing a clue to its one noteworthy failing.

‘Oh yes, all those Victorian husbands getting their wives put away,’ said a good friend, when I told her my plans for a book about sane people being declared mad in the nineteenth century. Many others subsequently came out with something similar. But I hadn’t got very far into my initial archival dig when the variety of victims of malicious asylum incarceration became apparent; and it appeared that, anecdotally at least, this was slightly more likely to have been a problem for men than for women…As for those people who were indisputably mentally disordered, the mysterious lunatic in the attic was as likely to have been Bert as Bertha.2

First, the virtue. Wise regards Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady (1985) as “part of the wave of academic work that rightly refocused historical studies on to the female experience” but offers her own work, not as a “backlash”, but “an attempt to reposition the discussion”.3 It is, in fact, a popularisation and extension of the approach taken by Joan Busfield in a response to Showalter entitled, appropriately if not imaginatively, ‘The Female Malady?’ Busfield discovered a fin-de-siècle ratio of 55:45 women to men in British asylums, and admission figures roughly equal between the sexes, the difference arising from a higher mortality rate among men, and a longer average length of stay among women, who were resident in asylums.4 For her part, Wise discovered nothing by way of “gender bias” in the phenomenon her work highlights: that of unjustified asylum admissions, or “doubtful certification”.5

So how to explain the perception of gross gender imbalance in Victorian lunacy practice that lies behind the comment reported in the preface to Inconvenient People? Wise attributes the trope of “mad wives in the attic; or sane wives to be driven mad” to the popular currency that “torture the heroine” narratives enjoyed in Victorian fiction, in preference to stories of “highly strung or unorthodox male…victim[s] of lunacy conspirators”. She cites Wilkie Collins, the author of The Woman in White, to this effect - “The victim to be interesting must be a woman, to be very interesting she must be a lady, [and] as there is a person to be injured - innocent and beautiful, of course - there must be a villan”.6 Once established, the trope became a focus of women’s rights campaigners, for whom “the asylum - its deprivations and entrapment, its insistence on a narrow range of acceptable behaviour, its thwarting of autonomy - writ large the lack of freedom that women, and wives in particular, experienced in everyday life”.7 It lived on, writes Wise, in plays and films of the early twentieth century, prompting “feminist academics” to “pick up this ball and…run with it”, privileging literary sources over other forms of evidence concerning lived experience with the result that “some distortion has crept in”.

Here is no attempt to overthrow the achievements of feminist historiography in “heroically retrieving from unjust neglect Victorian women’s novels, diaries and poetry and placing them centrally in any serious consideration of the period”.8 The strength of Wise’s contribution is as a corrective to and a consolidation (rather than rebuttal) of the feminist advance, within a larger narrative concerning the operation of England’s nineteenth century lunacy laws on both men and women. Its strength lies precisely in the recognition of nuance. Yet Inconvenient People does not offer a perfect depiction of its subject; its recognition of nuance does not extend quite far enough, as we shall see.

To be continued.