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Exposing stereotypes and exploring Victorian society...,
This review is from: Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England (Hardcover)
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. But there were enough alienists, 'mad-doctors' and asylum keepers who were prepared to sign anything for money that it is no wonder there was so much concern and public outcry over the ease with which a British citizen could be deprived of their liberty, with no appeal, no trial, no right to know who had signed the order or why.
Ironically, as Wise points out in her conclusion, despite the fact that we consider the 'sane lunatic' a stereotype of the Victorian age, with every family having not just a skeleton in the closet but a relative in the attic, it was the middle of the twentieth century that really took things to extremes, with young women held for decades simply for bearing an illegitimate child, teenagers held under middle or old age for rebellious youthful antics. And really, she asks, have things changed so much? The stigma of mental illness remains, and the public seem much less concerned about the erosion of civil liberties than they were a century or more ago.