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An Inconvenient Nuance 2

The Archivist here continues the review of Inconvenient People which he started late last month:

An attentive reading of the preface to Sarah Wise’s book alerts us, not only to the major contribution it purports to make to the literature on Victorian lunacy, but also to its blind spot.

‘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.1

As has been previously noted, Wise’s research led her to question the extent to which gender configured the phenomenon that has become the stuff of urban legend - “all those Victorian husbands getting their wives put away”. But the popular assumption concerning the ubiquity of “malicious asylum incarceration” and treatment of the sane in the nineteenth century (illustrated by the phrase ‘All those Victorian husbands…’) is effectively left unaddressed in her book. True, Wise does cite the mid-century assertions of John Perceval of the Alleged Lunatics’ Friends Society (on the one hand) and of John Charles Bucknill, the editor of the Journal of Mental Science (on the other) on the subject:

‘I do not know and have never pretended…that cases of unjust confinement were general, as compared with the number of persons confined as insane. But I believe that cases of unjust confinement and still more of unjust detention are very frequent and numerous.’ 2

From around 140 individuals in England and Wales who were licensed to receive insane people into their private institutions, just one ‘unhappy person has been found unworthy of the trust reposed in him,’ Bucknill wrote. ‘Ought they [the press] not rather have dwelt upon the fact…that this has been the solitary instance in which foul language and harsh conduct has been brought home to [i.e. proved against] any one of them.’ 3

However, it is more difficult to ascertain what Wise herself thinks about what proportion of people certified under Victorian lunacy legislation were anything other than “indisputably mentally disordered”.4 She might fairly object that the significance of her narratives of unjust confinement is not tied to a calculation of their prevalence, and that in any case there is no way of making such a calculation. The question of proportion is nevertheless an important one. To take an analogy, which I trust will be illuminating: the history of Victorian railway accidents is a legitimate and important study in its own right, and one which is bound to involve stories of irreducible human tragedy. It is also a study that is likely to illuminate the development of the Victorian railways. Yet if the railways are viewed solely within the prism of such accidents, and the question of whether they constituted the rule or the exception is never satisfactorily addressed, a highly jaundiced view of the subject is the likely result.

To be continued.