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Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England [Hardcover]

Sarah Wise
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)

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Book Description

4 Oct 2012

Gaslight tales of rooftop escapes, men and women snatched in broad daylight, patients shut in coffins, a fanatical cult known as the Abode of Love.

The nineteenth century 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 incarcerate difficult family members in return for the high fees paid by an unscrupulous spouse or friend. And contrary to popular modern belief, the madwoman in the attic was at least as likely to have been a madman.

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 Perceval, who, despite the best efforts of the abusive asylum attendants, cured himself.

Sarah Wise uncovers twelve shocking stories, 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'.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Bodley Head (4 Oct 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1847921124
  • ISBN-13: 978-1847921123
  • Product Dimensions: 23.8 x 15.8 x 5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 140,826 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Extra stories, pictures and further exploration of the subjects of each of her three books are available to read at

A short (16-minute) documentary film about The Italian Boy, filmed in June 2014, can be viewed here

You can hear her speaking about Inconvenient People at:
* The Wellcome Book Prize shortlist talk at Wilton's Music Hall, Sunday 27 April 2014

* The Guardian newspaper

* The BBC's Radio 4 'All in the Mind' programme

Her talk about the Old Nichol slum as an inspiration for Arthur Morrison's 1896 novel A Child of the Jago, given on 1 April 2014, can be heard here

A podcast of her talk about Murder and Grave Robbery in 1830s London, at the Museum of London, can be heard at

And an interview with BBC History Magazine about The Blackest Streets is at

Read her blog on 19th-century mental health at:

Sarah Wise grew up in West London and went to school in Wood Lane, White City. After graduation in English Literature, she worked as a freelance writer, mostly for arts, architecture and design titles, including the Guardian arts desk and Space magazine -- the Guardian's design and architecture supplement.

A Master's degree in Victorian Studies from the University of London led to the writing of The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave Robbery in 1830s London (2004) and The Blackest Streets (2008).
The former won the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. The latter was shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize for evocation of a location/landscape.

Her third book, Inconvenient People, has been shortlisted for the 2014 Wellcome Book Prize and was a book of the year in the Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Guardian and Spectator.

Product Description


"An illuminating look at an area of social history that inspired Wilkie Collins among others" (Sebastian Faulks Daily Telegraph, Books of the Year)

"Sarah Wise is an excellent writer, and those who pick up this book will not lightly put it down. Her ten chapters read like short novels, and she has the true social historian's ability to make her period come alive. She selects and compresses the salient details beautifully; one often feels as if one is actually present at the scenes she describes. There can be no higher praise... Inconvenient People is as interesting a work of social history as you are ever likely to read" (Anthony Daniels Spectator)

"The great gift of Sarah Wise's excellent Inconvenient People is to blow apart the myth that the most likely victim of the lunacy laws was a married woman... If much of Inconvenient People reads like a mood book through which Wilkie Collins might have flipped if stuck for inspiration, there are moments of high farce too. Wise is flexible enough in her narrative register to make it all right to find this very funny indeed" (Kathryn Hughes Guardian)

"Deeply researched and gripping... The book owes its enormous power to Sarah Wise's patience. She has sifted through hundreds of case histories... It makes for harrowing reading, but much of it is also hilarious, and as gripping as the most lurid Victorian melodramatic novel. Yet again, one closes a book with the impression that beneath the polished mahogany surfaces and shimmering silks of Victorian interiors lurked Hell itself" (A N Wilson Mail on Sunday)

"Fascinating... Sarah Wise has used her subject like an axe, to split open the Victorian facade 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" (Suzi Feay Financial Times)

"Sarah Wise has unearthed [several riveting cases] for this fine social history of contested lunacy in the 19th century... Wise has given us a fascinating book that teems with rich archival research. The pictorial sources are an added boon and make for a wonderfully illustrated addition to the history of the 19th century" (Lisa Appignanesi Daily Telegraph)

"A dark and disturbing investigation...trenchant and disturbing book" (John Carey Sunday Times)

"I thrilled to Sarah Wise's Inconvenient People, an enthralling study of those who fell foul of Victorian mad-doctors and greedy relatives" (Philip Hoare Sunday Telegraph)

"There is so much to interest and entertain in this book, which is enhanced by over eighty informative illustrations" (Gillian Tindall Literary Review)

"After these cheerful late cases comes a devastating epilogue... You put this quite superlative book down, shaken" (Edward Pearce Independent)

Book Description

This highly original book brilliantly exposes the phenomenon of false allegations of lunacy (and the dark motives behind them...) in the Victorian period.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars an eye-opener 16 Oct 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is a most accomplished piece of research and writing which presents much fascinating and frequently disturbing information about the conditions in England under the various nineteenth century lunacy laws. The use of a series of important case studies advances the story of how the laws came to be changed, albeit slowly. The author manages her material expertly and the narrative never flags--I read the book in a sitting. Another major positive factor is the clarity and vigour and wit which characterise the writer's style. Running through the stories of false imprisonment and harsh treatment is a memorialisation of men and, more frequently, women of great courage and tenacity who set out to challenge a cruel and arrogant system. While I knew much about the treatment of the book's subject in contemporary literature I was almost totally unaware of the reality behind the fictions. I learned a tremendous amount from this book and strongly recommend it as a stimulating and rewarding read.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well researched social history 15 Oct 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a well researched and thoroughly entertaining piece of social history. A number of case studies in which the victims have either been wrongly detained or continued in detention are used to explore the workings of the Lunacy Laws through the Victorian era. A light is shone on the, generally middle and upper class, families who used the laws to hide the inconvenient people of the title and on the medical practitioners who connived in, and profited from, the incarceration of these unfortunates. The book will appeal both to students of Victorian social and medical history as well as the general reader. My one minor (personal) criticism is the use of end notes without links from the main text.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
They have become two of the most recognisable stereotypes of women in the Victorian age, thanks to novels such as Jane Eyre and The Woman in White: the madwoman in the attic and the innocent heroine wrongfully imprisoned in a lunatic asylum. In this book, Wise sets out not necessarily to expose those stereotypes, but to explore the society that created them and uncover the reality of the lunacy system in Victorian England.

For a start, the majority of 'lunatics' incarcerated were male, whether they were held in public asylums, private care homes or within their own homes;the myth of the damsel in distress proving to be just that. Some undoubtedly were insane and were held for their own safety and the safety of others. But a great number were not insane, were guilty of little more than the kind of eccentricities and personality quirks that we today would scarcely blink at. It is these cases Wise uncovers in this book - individuals were dared to go against society's norms, who wished to 'marry beneath them' or not marry at all, who held unconventional religious beliefs, who stood in the way of economic progress of their husbands, wives or families.

The burgeoning field of psychologists and psychiatrists, known then as 'alienists', do not come across well in this book - that said, they were at the forefront of a new and uncharted field of human medicine, and it cannot be entirely held against them when there was indeed so many disagreements about what even constituted lunacy and how one could recognise it.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another masterpiece 30 Oct 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I came to Sarah Wise's work by first reading "The Blackest Streets", as my paternal origins are in the formerly designated "Old Nichol" area of Bethnal Green.I then read "The Italian Boy",another gripping read.
So, "Inconvenient People" is Sarah Wise's third work of social history and this time she is looking at the attitude,treatment and abuses directed at middle and upper class people in the 19th century who were deemed to be mentally ill and the way in which such people (usually with money) were inveigled,or forced into "lunatic asylums",often because somebody,usually a family member was eager to profit financially.Other family "difficulties" were also a motive for such incarceration.
The 12 case studies are very revealing and,as well as describing the personal misery suffered,a clear insight is given into Society's mores and why there were so many examples of hypocritical ,self-serving behaviour--which often
bordered on the criminal.The whole book is beautifully written and scrupulously researched.
Numerous senior statesmen and notable professional people do not come out of this at all well,or with their reputations intact.Moreover,we cannot put this all down to "the bad old days" of Victorian times,as the 20th century receives its own indictment at the end of the book.
Sarah Wise is clearly establishing herself as a social historian of the highest calibre and it will be fascinating to see what area of enquiry she turns to next.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inconvenient People? 18 Jun 2013
Another well researched and readable book from Sarah Wise. It may have become tedious reading the cases that came before the commissioners who decided on wrongful committal but all of the individuals, doctors, patients and family members were such colourful and interesting characters that I wanted to hear their stories.
What especially stuck me was how often the press and public opinion was firmly on the side of the alleged lunatic and defended his or her liberty. In many ways the view of the Victorians seemed more enlightened than that of fifty years ago when people could be forgotten in institutions for most of their life. It made me think about how we view mental illness and individual liberty today.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Factual
Full of facts and figures and has interesting parts but it would of been nice if more of a story had been woven around this.
Published 3 months ago by Mrs. Ann Kennell
2.0 out of 5 stars Cannot get into this book
The topic sounds so interesting and the author jumps in and moves at such a fast pace, trying to cram in too much. It is hard to follow and lost my interest.
Published 3 months ago by Pamela weiler
5.0 out of 5 stars Crazy tales of the mentality of Victorian England
Interesting stories from what must have been a living hell for the people admit to the Asylums. Worth a read!
Published 4 months ago by mr nigel m patterson
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but incorrectly dated
This is a good, informative and fresh approach to the subject. however, many of the references are NOT Victorian. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent introduction to views of lunacy in the 19th century
I had long thought that a book on the history of madness, and the way it was tolerated, accepted, ignored, dismissed, punished or otherwise treated by society would be a... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Mr. A. Weston
3.0 out of 5 stars One for the intellectuals
It is very interesting but dwells a lot more on the laws and making of the laws than anything else. I know that's what it said it was about in the small writing but the cover and... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Ms N C OFlynn
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book
Brought this book after watching TV documentary where Sarah wise gave interview. Sarah writes in an easy to read manner, I can imagine myself connecting to the people she is... Read more
Published 9 months ago by don't bother replying
5.0 out of 5 stars Conveniently written
This was a fascinating read. Comprehensibly written and thouroughly enjoyable. Depicting who really would have been sent to a victorian asylum, men and those with money it seemed. Read more
Published 10 months ago by LizzyHurst82
5.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing and accomplished piece of writing - fascinating
I can only echo other reviews, but thought I'd add my piece as this is one of the best books I've read and well worth buying if you have a deeper interest in the subject. Read more
Published 13 months ago by London_nurse
5.0 out of 5 stars Well written, informative and interesting
Th book had me captured from 5 minutes reading while enjoying a coffee, I actually brought the kindle fire to read the rest on! Read more
Published 13 months ago by Cornelia
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