An Englishman had the right to marry a courtesan, calamitously impersonate petty officials, vomit at table, indulge as much solitary vice as he pleased, and spend as much cash as he liked.

Think lunatic asylum and the words will instantly conjure up an image of a Victorian institution with mad-doctors and deranged patients in straight-jackets. This book, pieced together from correspondence and court reports of the time, tells the story of how the asylums got their image today. Mad-doctors indeed, this was just what Victorians called doctors who dealt with the mentally ill; they were also referred to as alienists. Neither term elicits confidence of the profession from a modern mind-set.

I found the subject matter fascinating however it did get a little repetitive. Each chapter deals with a case study, most of which share some similarities, and the writing is quite dense. Yet the historical detail, and unwillingness of Sarah Wise to embroider the truth with modern sensibilities, drives home that fact is stranger than fiction. Some of these plots would be laughed at in a modern day novel, yet these cases did actually happen.

It does dispel the myth that Victorian women were more likely to be locked away than men. Figures are actually quite even between the sexes. One of the cases does highlight how the female plight was given more coverage in the press, with one victim making the most of her publicity skills to further the feminist cause. Fiction writers found a female lunatic was much more popular with their readers than a man wrongly confined. Yes, hysteria was coined to refer to “excitable” women but men were at greater risk of being locked away for their money.

The reoccurring theme from both the male and female cases was the fact that the family were after something and the easiest way to get it was to declare their relative insane. There was huge injustice in these cases, where wrongful incarceration was charged to the victims’ accounts. The law just wasn’t on the accused side. Whilst there is a huge list of things that you could be declared insane for doing, it seemed they were usually just an excuse.

It was morally right, argued Conolly, that society be helped to become more pleasant and more decent by the removal of its upsetting and disgusting elements and those who did not know right from wrong.

There was one case that stood out as different to me, the case where a mother was trying to free her daughters from what I can only call a cult. The lunacy laws were her only tool and I felt sympathy for her. They might have had the right to believe in whatever religious nonsense they liked but there was a distinct whiff of brainwashing to it. It’s probably still a grey-area in law, when does something go from harmless to needing state intervention?

The cases are in roughly chronological order and they do show how public and legal attitudes shifted over the years. There’s also a few places which refer to them literature of the time, most prominently Jane Eyre and The Woman in White and Charles Dickens crops up repeatedly in his role as journalist, publisher and friend to many of the men involved. It seems Victorian society was a small world indeed.

Some of it is uncomfortable reading. It it wasn’t bad enough to have your liberty taken away, many also had their dignity removed. Whilst some mad-doctors believed a nice, calming stay in the country away from family would help matters, many also believed in restraint and punishment. I would recommend this as research for anyone using a Victorian asylum in their writing, although I think reading it in one go for entertainment isn’t such a good idea.

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Book Source: Purchased