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Inconvenient people: Lunacy, liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England (Sarah Wise)

Sarah Wise

2012, Bodley Head, London

ISBN 978-1 -847-92112-3

Sarah Wise took an MA in Victorian Studies at Birbeck College, University of London. She has written two previous books ‘The Blackest Streets’ and ‘The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave Robbery in 1830’s London’ which won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for NonFiction. ‘Inconvenient People’ covers the period of the nineteenth century which saw repeated panics about sane individuals being locked away in lunatic asylums. With the rise of the ‘mad-doctor’ profession, English liberty seemed to be threatened by a new generation of medical men willing to incriminate difficult family members in return for the high fees paid by an unscrupulous spouse or friend. Contrary to popular modern belief, the madwoman in the attic was at least likely to have been a madman.

Sarah Wise uncovers ten shocking stories, some untold for over a century, which reveal the darker side of the Victorian upper and middle classes – their sexuality, fears of inherited madness, financial greed and fraudulence - and chillingly evoke the black motives at the heart of the phenomenon of the ‘inconvenient person’. Wise tells us that these stories have been selected to highlight the range of people who had to fight for their liberty against imputation of insanity. Among the victims were the beautiful and charismatic Rosina, wife of the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton; Edward Davies, victim of a mother’s greed; Louisa Lowe, who paid for her religious fervour; and John Percival, who despite the best efforts of the abusive asylum attendants, cured himself.

The ‘lunacy panics’ of the nineteenth century, Wise notes, highlighted the fear that the English were sleepwalking into allowing the medical profession to curb individual freedom by labelling unconventional behaviour as a pathological condition, in need of cure or containment. Although no one had anything to gain from deliberately certifying the poor wrongly, the introduction of the Act for the Regulation of Private Madhouses (1774), laid down the situation that mad house keepers could only accept a paying patient upon the signed certificate of a medical man. But no certificate was required if a patient was to be confined in their own home and every madhouse accommodating more than one lunatic henceforth required a licence.

Inconvenient People starts with a note on terminology in which Wise explains she uses the word ‘alienist’ throughout, since ‘psychiatrist’ only came into common use in the final twenty years of the (19th) century. Other terms include ‘pauper lunatic’, ‘private patient’, chancery lunatic’, criminal lunatic’ and ‘single patient’. Wise explains that provided there was not more than one lunatic boarded, the ‘single house’, or ‘single lodgings’, did not need to be licensed by the Commissioners in Lunacy. But all single patients kept for profit were required to have been certified insane by two physicians and their presence notified to the Commissioners in Lunacy. The exception to this was the insane family member confined at home – kept not for profit but by ‘natural obligation’ of blood, or marriage.

In the case of Catherine Cummins, her family had made numerous attempts to certify her as mad. They ultimately hoped that a judge would find her not guilty of charges by reason of insanity – a far quicker and cheaper, route of getting her into an asylum and thereby achieving control of her money. But the perjury charge was instantly dismissed by a magistrate. Catherine Cummins summed up the family attempts to have her incarcerated by saying ‘If I had been poor, they would have left me alone’. A Lloyd’s Weekly newspaper editorial of 1st August 1858 read ‘It is so easy to prove that an obnoxious relative is insane; it is easier still to aggravate trivial symptoms by persistent bad treatment.’

Wise concludes this chapter by observing that ‘It was again noted how unsatisfactory it was that nineteen eminent medical men could give widely differing opinions of what constituted soundness of mind, tailoring their learning according to which ‘side’ in the dispute had hired them’. Additionally, how could the public trust the judgements of a body of men who were in such theoretical conflict with each other? Thankfully such situations do not arise in present times, or perhaps thinking about it…

The ten stories are a terrific insight into the period and the book is also supported with wonderful illustrations and prints of the time. One such illustration from 1846 is that of the Alleged Lunatics’ Friend Society, founded in July 1845 – where it is noted that at a meeting of several Gentlemen who were feeling deeply interested in behalf of their fellowcreatures and in particular regard to some peoples confinement as lunatic patients. Further noted is that this society is formed for the protection of the British subject from unjust confinement on the grounds of mental derangement, and for the redress of persons so confined; also for the protection of all persons confined as lunatic patients from cruel and improper treatment.

There is a collection of interesting information among the appendices including lunacy legislation affecting wrongful confinement from 1774 and up to the 1983 Mental Health Act, official lunacy statistics and brief outlines of cases highlighted by the Alleged Lunatics’ Friend Society. This is an entertaining and useful book and should be of relevance to all those involved in British history as well as those of psychological and psychiatric backgrounds.

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