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 fascinating read, so I was delighted to come across this book.
However, on reading it I found out that it was not quite what I had imagined. Instead, it was an account of the "progress" that madness made in the nineteenth century, or more accurately, the progress of it's diagnosis and treatment. Wise's approach is a good one - she takes a dozen cases, spanning the nineteenth century, and gives detailed accounts of the individuals whose sanity was questioned, when, who by, and the implications that this case had on the legal, medical and academic status of madness. Touching upon questions of majority viewpoint, truth, perception and social standing, this gives the reader a thorough - and enjoyable - journey through "madness" in the Victorian era (and a little before.)
The cases are well selected, and each one gripping. One of the reviews claim that there's enough to fill "a dozen fat novels" - and that wouldn't be far out. I was particularly interested by the cases of Mr Perceval and Mrs Cummings, but the chapter concerning a cult named "The Abode of Love" probably beat all. What is an extra and very welcome bonus, Wise does tie up the "loose ends" towards the end of each case. Too often when reading an historical account, I finish it but still want to know - what happened to the supporting cast? What about the buildings? The organisation? And so the list goes on. Wise settles these little questions, and happily there's a great deal of interest in the answers. The buildings used by the Abode of Love, for instance, ended up being used in the 1960s for the BBC when they were filming "Watch With Mother"!
The narrative is given to the occasional diversion, such as the way madness was represented in novels of the time, which all serve to present a clear and well-rounded view of the nineteenth century's attitudes. What is refreshing too is that the "mad-doctors" - painted by press and public as various types of bogey-men - are carefully and sensitively portrayed - rather than just condemned out of hand.
On top of all this, there is a refreshing and vibrant writing style. Wise is lively and fully aware that she's writing for an audience, rather than creating a series of lecture notes. One memorable phrase, concerning a Mrs Lowe - a mistress of an individual, she lived on a houseboat on the Thames - becoming "Mrs Lowe-on-Thames"; another references to Dickens' involvement (or lack of) in a case - "she couldn't blame it all on Boz"; and a different observation comparing two different types of wandering fingers, which I shan't repeat as I don't know whether it would show me as a good critic or simply open to a little bit of smutty humour.
The whole book is a joy, from start to finish, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the era, or subject, or concepts, that are covered. I have not enjoyed such a book for a very long time, and it's with great joy that I see Sarah Wise has got at least two more published!