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Valentine’s Day at Bethlem

Dr Jane Hamlett, one of the leaders of the At Home in the Institution project at Royal Holloway, University of London, who was a guest blogger for us last summer, returns as a guest for us today, St Valentine's Day.

On February 14th in Victorian England sweethearts and suitors often declared their love by sending Valentines . But it's surprising to find that they were also sent at Bethlem.

I'm working on a book on material life in Victorian institutions, and as a part of this I've been looking at Bethlem. Finding out about goods and objects in patients' everyday lives isn't easy. I've been combing Bethlem's voluminous patient case books, looking for mentions of clothes, personal items and other significant small things.

So you can imagine my surprise and delight when I stumbled over this Valentine, sent by a young female patient, Eliza Jane P. on February 14, 1886. Not only is it written in the patient's own words, but it is actually comprised of contemporary material objects - thread, needles, pins and buttons - all carefully attached to the page.

Buttons 2

The message that accompanies the sewing things isn't entirely clear, especially the words in the middle of the text. But it probably says: "Bachelor's Requisites. From A Real. An old Maid."

Eliza Jane was a dressmaker, and the Valentine is a display of her professional expertise.

But it also plays on the Victorian idea that single men or bachelors lacked basic household skills, and were often reliant on mothers, sisters or female friends for assistance. To help her Valentine out, Eliza Jane has labelled the darning cotton, sewing cotton, thread, and even the pins. This last at least must be a joke, as even the most ignorant Victorian male would surely have been familiar with these.

This love token reminds us that in Victorian courtship rituals women were not always passive recipients.

In fact, the address on the envelope reveals that the missive was destined for one of Bethlem's doctors. So not only was Eliza Jane able to send a man a Valentine, but she also felt able to bridge the divide between doctor and patient.

But when we consider the context in which the Valentine has been presented, its meaning changes. It is pinned into a casebook, next to notes made by the asylum authorities on Eliza Jane's admission and progress. In general, patient letters were preserved in casebooks for a variety of reasons. There are letters written back to the asylum from recovered patients expressing gratitude to doctors, and some penned to friends and family outside from within. They could be kept as handwriting samples. Sometimes, too, they were seen as evidence of continuing delusions.

The contrast between the voices of patients in letters and the notes made about them in the case books is often very poignant. Here, we learn that Eliza Jane was admitted to Bethlem in 1885 in a depressed and melancholy state.

The Valentine conveys warmth, feminine skill, and slightly risque fun. But the notes suggest that the asylum doctors and attendants viewed their patient in a different light. Two weeks before the Valentine was sent she was recorded as "too talkative fond of male society not always truthful". According to the official documentation, she was still "emotional and erotic" in March, and "flighty and nervous" in May. Finally, in June, she was considered well enough to be sent home, but was readmitted in the same year.

In the circumstances, it's hard to know how to read the Valentine. Was it placed in the casebook as a testament to the ongoing flightiness of this wayward female patient? Was it pinned here to demonstrate her unacceptable expressions of sexuality? Yet it could also be here to supply evidence of mental alertness, steady hands, and a sense of humour that persisted despite illness and incarceration.

As the records can only take us so far, we will never know the answer to this question. It's a good example of the constant tension between the snatches of patient voices offered by surviving letters and the institutional records of the asylum. It remains the historian's job to negotiate this, and to try and make sure that both sides of the story are heard.