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October 5, 2012 7:41 pm
Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad Doctors in Victorian England, by Sarah Wise, Bodley Head RRP£20, 496 pages
The most potent image of Victorian insanity in popular culture is that of the “clothed hyena” Bertha, the mad wife in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It is, writes Sarah Wise in Inconvenient People, “perhaps the most vicious depiction of an insane person to have been committed to paper”.
Yet in 1847, when the novel was published, Mr Rochester’s decision not to place Bertha in an institution was intended to be read as “a mark of his nobility, not perversity, or brutality”. Through vivid case histories, Wise’s fascinating book traces almost a century of legislation dealing with the insane.
Bertha’s plight gave rise to a celebrated work of feminist literary scholarship, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic (1979). But Wise seeks to refute the notion that the 19th-century lunacy laws were yet another manifestation of male dominance and female victimisation. Her research indicates that men were just as likely to be “victims of malicious asylum incarceration”; perhaps more so, given that these cases often revolved around money.
There are some villainous mothers here, seeking to regain control of a son’s inheritance, or prevent an unsuitable match. In 1829, Edward Davies, a wealthy young tea-broker of endearingly eccentric habits, was dragged from a London coffee house by two burly men who tried to bundle him into a cab. Such force angered the public and a mob formed to prevent the abduction. Wise shows how the robust notion of English liberty trumping all other considerations declined as the century progressed, allowing state intervention in previously sacrosanct areas: within families or even marriage.
Davies, whose controlling mother was behind his persecution, was eventually persuaded to go to “a lovely house on Regent’s Park” to rest, but found himself in a private asylum. Once certified by two doctors who could easily be in cahoots, or even making money from running their own private retreats, it was not at all easy for a suspected lunatic to extricate him or herself, especially since these unfortunates were often highly strung to begin with. Harsh treatment and the knowledge they had been betrayed by their loved ones was enough to make them “very wild”.
In the early 1830s, John Perceval, son of the assassinated prime minister Spencer Perceval, was brutally abused at a Quaker-run asylum during an episode of mental illness. Despite his violent treatment, Perceval improved, realised his plight and sought redress. Through his Alleged Lunatics’ Friend Society, he spent the rest of his life campaigning for the release of those held too long or improperly certified.
If the cast of eccentrics here resemble the characters of 19th-century fiction, that is not entirely a coincidence. The Victorian sensation novelists were inspired by cases such as that of Rosina Bulwer-Lytton, estranged wife of the writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who sent her husband, son and others a stream of abusive letters. Yet her assertions that a cabal of establishment figures protected her husband ring true: the attorney-general had been a close friend of Lord Lytton’s at Cambridge, and Charles Dickens’ bosom friend John Forster was despatched to spy on Lady Lytton.
Wise also relates how the now forgotten novelist Charles Reade took up cudgels in Hard Cash (1863), an exposé of those profiting from treating lunatics. The work failed to appeal; his protagonist was a man, whereas Wilkie Collins had a hit with The Woman in White (1859), perhaps adding to the notion that women were disproportionately at risk.
Sarah Wise has used her subject like an axe, to split open the Victorian façade and examine everything wriggling behind. It has enough tragedy, comedy, farce and horror to fill a dozen fat novels, and enough bizarre characters to people them.
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