Nineteenth Century Society: Women, Madness & Marriage 4

Marriage breakdown could cause massive disruption in the lives of married women in the Victorian era. Even in cases where the termination of the marriage had been desired, such as that of Kate Marian Merriman, admitted as a patient of Bethlem Hospital in July 1891, the change in position might be hard to deal with. Suddenly returned to the care of her family after separation from her husband six years ago, 36 year old Merriman “had considerable trouble with her relations over family matters,” most of which seem to relate to her desire for independence for, like Grace Sapsford a decade later, she felt that “I surely have a perfect right at my age to choose my future.”

Kate Merriman told the medical officers a lengthy story of her admission, refuting or explaining most of the issues stated as delusions in her medical certificates. “The night before admission she stayed at a hotel at Henley by herself with no luggage but a travelling bag. She was much upset by the way she was treated there, she says with great want of respect. The people there mistook a razor in her bag for a suicidal instrument, whereas she always carried it to cut her corns. She says nothing in her conduct accounted for the rude way in which she was treated. This bother caused her so much annoyance that she refused her food.”

It is unclear whether the medical officers took the word of Kate’s brother (who connected her illness with her separation from her husband six years before) or herself – for they certainly commented on the lack of clear symptoms of insanity. Moreover, the conversational tone of the letter written by Mrs Merriman to Dr Hyslop after her discharge indicates that she felt he understood her: “as you know, I have not had anything to do with my relatives for some time.” However, as Kate was legally regarded as a dependent of her parents, the medical officers were in a difficult position: they would have to send her back to her parents’ home. This, she wrote, caused her to feel “isolated” in the Hospital, and: “While forgiving as one hopes to be forgiven, one cannot forget the past six & a half years of their life. … I have lived the quietest of lives in rooms with my children before, if necessary I can do it again, & be far happier there, than I could ever be with my own family.”

Ultimately, Kate Merriman managed to achieve her aims. Discharged cured in November 1891, her certificate was signed by a doctor in Penzance – where she had long claimed she wished to move with her children, well away from the family she disliked, in part due to their overbearing views on her marriage. This doctor, Humphry Davy, in fact disagreed with the diagnoses which had led to her certification in the first place. He declared that he had seen Mrs Merriman many times in the last four years and had never witnessed any symptom of insanity: as he saw it, her ideas of persecution at the hands of her family were entirely rational.

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