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Nineteenth Century Society: Women, Madness and Marriage 1

This short series looks at the very different experiences of several of Victorian Bethlem’s female patients regarding marriage. The diversity of these reminds us of how problematic it can be to make general assumptions about social expectations in the nineteenth century, despite the fact that some cases do indicate elements of the stereotypes commonly indicated by many feminist histories.

What might be of particular interest in an era in which online dating has received regular attention – both positive and negative – is those references found in the Bethlem casebooks to matrimonial agencies. For single women well past the usual marrying age, such as Mary Ann Swann, who was admitted to Bethlem in July 1895 as a voluntary boarder, social expectations could be difficult to deal with. Young people were expected to suffer from insanity following “love disappointments,” yet in fifty-year-old Swann’s case, her attitudes to marriage were seen as evidence of her mental illness. Mary Ann held the delusion “that she is persecuted by her sisters in order that they may keep her money … She is also erotic & desires to marry some man who will protect her from her sisters & brothers.” While her desire to marry in order to escape her perceived persecution could be regarded as quite a rational response to something she felt was very real, Mary Ann’s persistent desire to marry was instead regarded in Bethlem as a further delusion, related to her “erotic” nature: inappropriate behaviour in someone regarded as a confirmed spinster.

What was most problematic was Swann’s use of matrimonial agencies to effect her object: the Commissioners in Lunacy clearly regarded this as a dubious means of finding a suitor. After she was discharged well, in September 1895, Commissioner Mr Frene paid a visit to the Hospital, presumably instigated by the patient’s relatives, “to enquire how it was that this patient was at large as she was doing most extraordinary things & was shortly to be married to a man whom she had got to know through the Matrimonial News.” The Bethlem medical officers promptly arranged for Swann’s re-certification: presumably suspicion of such dating agencies was widespread. Mary Ann herself regarded her re-admission as a conspiracy on the part of her relatives, claiming that there was nothing extraordinary in her conduct. Yet, as Bethlem superintendent George Savage pointed out in his published writings, in the frequent absence of visible physical signs and symptoms the presence or absence of insanity had often to be determined by behaviour, regardless of the patient’s protestations. In the event, Mary Swann was discharged well after three months as a Bethlem patient.