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An Inconvenient Nuance 3

The Archivist now concludes his long-running book review:
Inconvenient People contains just one authorial intimation concerning the important question of the frequency (as distinct from the incontestable but separate matter of the fact) of malicious psychiatric incarceration in England. It relates, as it happens, not to lunatic asylum admissions of the nineteenth century (the mainstay of her narrative) but to mental hospital admissions of the mid-twentieth. Unfortunately, it is misleading.

The Times described as ‘barbaric’ the imprisonment for life of three women discovered in a mental hospital near Doncaster in 1972, who between them had served 110 years for each having a child out of wedlock in the 1920s. The hospital was in the process of reviewing all 520 patients, and anticipated that around one-fifth would be released. Many elderly women were found who had passed their entire reproductive life [sic] in a psychiatric hospital, having become helpless through decades of institutionalisation. It is perhaps one of the most common phenomena of the genealogical explosion of the past twenty years: the discovery of a great-grandmother, great-aunt or other female ancestor who was ‘put away’ for having an illegitimate baby. Time and again, these twentieth-century tragedies are brought to life by those researching their family history. The Victorian era has famously been dubbed ‘the age of incarceration’ by Michel Foucault; and yet to judge by the numbers of those detained in mental hospitals and homes for most of their lives, it is the middle decades of the twentieth century that deserve that unhappy title.1

The inflationary path taken by these lines is worth careful consideration. We are invited, by three cases of alleged wrongful confinement (‘alleged’ because The Times asserts, but does not establish, that these admissions were causally linked to births out of wedlock), to contemplate over one hundred comparable cases at one institution near Doncaster - invited by implication rather than directly, despite the fact that, in an age of de-institutionalisation such as the 1970s, there would have been multiple motives behind the discharge of elderly patients from full-time residential care. From that putative number at one institution, we then pass to “many” elderly women in psychiatric hospitals generally, and from there to the discovery of a female ancestor “put away for having an illegitimate baby” being “perhaps one of the most common phenomena encountered” by family historians. The caveat implied by the word “perhaps” is lost in the next stage in the upward trajectory of this argument. “Time and again, these tragedies are brought to life” by genealogists until finally the (unspecified) “numbers of those detained in mental hospitals and homes…in the middle decades of the twentieth century” may be assumed (by the reader who has been carried along on the wave of this rhetoric) to be overwhelming and practically coterminous with the numbers of those detained without justification.

Inconvenient People is only incidentally concerned with Bethlem Hospital (as has been noted previously), and its principal focus is on English lunacy provision of the Victorian era. Too close scrutiny of an aside about the twentieth century might seem like carping on the part of Bethlem’s Archivist. Yet it is possible to acknowledge the merits of the book as a whole at the same time as venturing some words of criticism of the drift of the argument of this paragraph. Firstly, to encourage the inference that significant numbers of women were “imprisoned” for “having a child out of wedlock” without providing statistical evidence in support risks the re-establishment of a gender stereotype, with respect to the twentieth century, of the kind that Wise spends so much time modifying in the light of the nineteenth-century evidence she does have at her command. Remember, “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”.2 A second point concerns the assertion that “the discovery of a…female ancestor who was ‘put away’ for having an illegitimate baby” is “one of the most common phenomena of the genealogical explosion of the past twenty years”. It arises from my twelve years’ experience (as well as close acquaintance with my long-serving predecessor) as Bethlem’s Archivist, and from association with fellow archivists across the country who have custody of psychiatric records. We all know that the trope of the unmarried mother institutionalised for life in a mental hospital has considerable traction in the popular imagination. To my certain knowledge, however, none of us have ever come across a clear instance of this in the records to which we have facilitated researchers’ access. None of us are naïve - we would never say ‘never’ - and we have no reason to try to hide anything. Yet, if asked whether such discoveries comprise “one of the most common phenomena of the genealogical explosion of the past twenty years”, in all honesty, I think we would have to respond that we barely recognise it as a phenomenon at all.

To end this review on a sour note would be to leave an unfair impression. I suppose that it might be possible to treat Inconvenient People as confirmation of people’s wildest and worst suspicions about the workings of Victorian lunacy law - certainly the imaginations of those who do not look past its title may have free rein - but a considered reading uncovers considerably more nuance than this. Sarah Wise’s work is not solely about the perpetration of abuses in the Victorian mental health ‘system’; it also concerns those who resisted, refused to tolerate and campaigned against such abuses. As was noted in the first instalment of this review, these are important stories which have been skilfully told. Yet, for all that, they cannot be made to stand in for a rounded narrative of Victorian lunacy provision, any more than a catalogue of railway disasters could do service as a history of the railways.