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Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England Paperback – 3 Oct 2013
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"Excellent" (Kathryn Hughes Guardian)
"A fine social history of the people who contested their confinement to madhouses in the 19th century, Wise offers striking arguments, suggesting that the public and juries were more intent on liberty than doctors and families" (Sunday Telegraph)
"Action-packed and entertaining… [A] marvellous book" (Christopher Hirst i)
"Fascinating… 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)
"Wise is a terrific researcher and storyteller. Here she has woven a series of case studies into a fascinating history of insanity in the 19th century" (Kate Summerscale Guardian Books of the Year)
This highly original book brilliantly exposes the phenomenon of false allegations of lunacy (and the dark motives behind them...) in the Victorian period.See all Product description
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Top customer reviews
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.
The author often mentions fiction in which this occurs – namely Jane Eyre and Women in White but the truth was often not far, or sometimes even worse than fiction.
The reasons for incarceration ranged from relatives wanting control of finances; inconvenient wives; women who spoke out and behaved against the rigid, masculine status quo, and in one of the case studies a group involved with a cult. Each case is discussed in depth, sympathetically and the changes in law (if any applied) mentioned.
It is a good insight into the world of Victorian England, the rules governing the role of women, the sick, the upper-classes and how the populace reacted. Ignorance, spite, greed and misdirection fill these pages, along with love gone sour, obsession and most importantly – courage.
For anyone interested in Victorian history, the history of mental illness treatment or psychiatry might find this book a good read.