An Inconvenient Nuance 2

The Archivist here continues the review of Inconvenient People which he started late last month:

An attentive reading of the preface to Sarah Wise’s book alerts us, not only to the major contribution it purports to make to the literature on Victorian lunacy, but also to its blind spot.

‘Oh yes, all those Victorian husbands getting their wives put away,’ said a good friend, when I told her my plans for a book about sane people being declared mad in the nineteenth century. Many others subsequently came out with something similar. But I hadn’t got very far into my initial archival dig when the variety of victims of malicious asylum incarceration became apparent; and it appeared that, anecdotally at least, this was slightly more likely to have been a problem for men than for women… As for those people who were indisputably mentally disordered, the mysterious lunatic in the attic was as likely to have been Bert as Bertha.1

As has been previously noted, Wise’s research led her to question the extent to which gender configured the phenomenon that has become the stuff of urban legend – “all those Victorian husbands getting their wives put away”. But the popular assumption concerning the ubiquity of “malicious asylum incarceration” and treatment of the sane in the nineteenth century (illustrated by the phrase ‘All those Victorian husbands…’) is effectively left unaddressed in her book. True, Wise does cite the mid-century assertions of John Perceval of the Alleged Lunatics’ Friends Society (on the one hand) and of John Charles Bucknill, the editor of the Journal of Mental Science (on the other) on the subject:

‘I do not know and have never pretended…that cases of unjust confinement were general, as compared with the number of persons confined as insane. But I believe that cases of unjust confinement and still more of unjust detention are very frequent and numerous.’ 2

From around 140 individuals in England and Wales who were licensed to receive insane people into their private institutions, just one ‘unhappy person has been found unworthy of the trust reposed in him,’ Bucknill wrote. ‘Ought they [the press] not rather have dwelt upon the fact…that this has been the solitary instance in which foul language and harsh conduct has been brought home to [i.e. proved against] any one of them.’ 3

However, it is more difficult to ascertain what Wise herself thinks about what proportion of people certified under Victorian lunacy legislation were anything other than “indisputably mentally disordered”.4 She might fairly object that the significance of her narratives of unjust confinement is not tied to a calculation of their prevalence, and that in any case there is no way of making such a calculation. The question of proportion is nevertheless an important one. To take an analogy, which I trust will be illuminating: the history of Victorian railway accidents is a legitimate and important study in its own right, and one which is bound to involve stories of irreducible human tragedy. It is also a study that is likely to illuminate the development of the Victorian railways. Yet if the railways are viewed solely within the prism of such accidents, and the question of whether they constituted the rule or the exception is never satisfactorily addressed, a highly jaundiced view of the subject is the likely result.

[to be continued]

1 S. Wise, Inconvenient People (London: The Bodley Head, 2012), p. xvii.

2 ibid., p. 287.

3 ibid., p. 266.

4 ibid., p. xvii.

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2 Responses to “An Inconvenient Nuance 2”


  1. 1 Sarah Wise March 25, 2013 at 10:24 am

    You have written that ‘Inconvenient People does not offer a perfect depiction of its subject’: it never intended to. My ambitions were humble enough – to explore the known cases of wrongful asylum detention and to set these against the background of what could, and could not, be considered psychologically ‘normal’ between the years 1828 and 1890. I was, of course, unable to explore the unknown, undocumented cases of wrongful detention – perhaps you will be big-hearted enough to forgive the failure of my clairvoyant powers.

    So yes, I do ‘fairly object that the significance of her narratives of unjust confinement is not tied to a calculation of their prevalence, and that in any case there is no way of making such a calculation.’ To abandon an investigation of an important subject because its entire dimensions cannot be easily ascertained seems defeatist. Or perhaps I should have laboured on for ever, like Mr Casaubon and his ‘Key to All Mythologies’.

    Far from being ‘jaundiced’ in my view of Victorian alienists and institutions for the insane, I have highlighted good practice, enlightened regimes, the tendencies of certain anti-lunacy-law campaigners to hyperbole, and their failures before the two Select Committees convened to investigate their allegations.

    No – a history of mental health cannot be compared to a history of the railways. Accidents that happened on 19th-century railways were witnessed, logged, enumerated, investigated and reported in public documents; these incidents can then be set against a background of calculable accident-free rail miles nationally within a given timeframe. A crash or a derailment is an ascertainable fact; but a criminal plot to unhinge somebody’s psychological health does not enter the public record in that way, if indeed it ever enters the public record at all. That is precisely why I can only report what the parties involved (the Commissioners in Lunacy, the lunacy law campaigners, former asylum inmates) had to say on the likely prevalence of the phenomenon. Their words, their beliefs, are all we have to go on.

    Psychiatric diagnosis is difficult enough among the living: to attempt retrospective diagnoses of people from the 19th century is something that I would prefer to leave to a writer/researcher who is brimming over with the ebullient self-certainty that such a task would require.

  2. 2 Richard Comaish (@londheart) April 22, 2014 at 5:21 pm

    I don’t like the idea of entirely giving up on calculating how common malicious mental health detention is now, or was in some previous historical era. Data from anonymous questionnaires – albeit biased from the perspective of aggrieved patients and their supporters – don’t seem to have been tried, and discussion on this thread seems to be restricted, heretofore, to malicious referral in the context of personal relationships. At the risk of stating the obvious, what about all the religious and political dissidents? – or do you subscribe to the ‘convenient,’ Keston College, Western Cold War propaganda line to the effect that ‘That’s just Russia?’


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