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Nineteenth Century Society: Women, Madness & Marriage 3

Nancy Jessie Joy was admitted twice in 1888. Aged 22, Nancy was a Still Room Maid, regarded as suffering from melancholia. She was quickly discharged cured following her first admission, but later claimed to have been simply pretending to be well. After this discharge, while still depressed, she “had the idea that if she became "ruined" a change would come over her mind.” She wandered from home and was "accosted by a gentleman." Having “allowed him to have intercourse with her,” she “now feels she is going to hell and wants to hurry this on.” In Nancy’s case, conventional gender roles were used to attempt to avoid the stigma that might be associated with her behaviour: the “seduced woman,” Nancy’s actions are interpreted as entirely passive (she “wanders,” and does not instigate relations but simply “allows” it), while the “accosting” gentleman is the active party. Her “seduction” was seen as the reason for Nancy’s re-admission in October 1888 – popular literature in particular frequently associated female insanity and suicidal behaviour with seduction: again, however, she was quickly discharged as recovered, without further comment on her actions.

Yet the role of the Victorian psychiatrist in such cases was complicated - at once physician, moral guardian and spiritual counsellor, indicated by the letter Nancy wrote to Dr Smith three years after her discharge. Having apparently remained well, she begged Dr Smith for advice, for “I feel I cannot ask my mother.” Two things, Nancy felt, might prevent her marrying, as she described her situation to Dr Smith as follows:

"I am engaged to a young man who wishes to marry me & does not mind my having been insane. I could not frame my lips to utter, or I would rather have come & ask you. [sic] Sir, in my sane mind not an impure thought enters my mind. ... Am I really ruined or not? If I am I will never marry, no man shall reproach and if you are able to say I am not ruined then one question more, was my insanity of a nature that it would not be right for me to marry?"

There is no indication of Dr Smith’s response to this letter – or whether he even replied at all. However, Nancy was still single when she was admitted to Bethlem in 1899, aged 32, her relapse caused by “mental worry,” presumably due to her “self accusation.” This time, she was discharged uncured.