Published by Bodley Head 4 October 2012
496pp, hardback, £20
Reviewed by Charlotte Moore
Sarah Wise states that she has written ‘a book about sane people being declared mad in the nineteenth century’. This epitomizes her clear and forceful organization of an intricate mass of archival material. The ‘inconvenient people’ whose stories she tells were cast into the ‘madhouse oubliette’ by their spouses or relatives, sometimes as a way of dealing with embarrassingly eccentric or indiscreet behaviour, more often for financial reasons. Most belonged to the middle or upper classes; as Wise points out, ‘no one had much to gain from mis-certifying the poor.’
There had been some improvement since the ‘entirely unregulated madhouse industry’ of the eighteenth century, but Victorian legislation concerning the insane was a net with gaping holes through which many victims fell. Wise traces the burgeoning campaign for reform of the asylum commital procedure. She examines nineteenth-century definitions of lunacy, and touches on its representation in the literature of the day; The Woman In White and Jane Eyre are the best-known examples, but she tracks down others now lost to view. She describes the enormous public support for the victims of wrongful incarceration; individual liberty was dear to the heart of the nineteenth-century masses. She shows how the Commissioners in Lunacy failed to keep pace with public opinion. Most memorably for most readers, she tells the extraordinary stories of individuals, sometimes tragic, sometimes hilarious, sometimes, oddly, both.
Edward Davies was a socially awkward young man whose gaucheries could alarm people. He had an uncanny ability to identify and grade different varieties of tea. His greedy, domineering mother harnessed his talent to make a fortune for the family firm. When Edward, who sounds as if he had Asperger Syndrome, rebelled against her control, his mother arranged for madhouse keepers to grab him in the street. Passers-by tried to rescue him; later, crowds of supporters demonstrated against his incarceration. When the mother’s case against her son eventually failed, her effigy was burned in her home town, the climax of four days of public celebration, with whole sheep roasted in the market-place.
Having notable connections was no safeguard against incarceration. John Perceval was the son of Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated. John was traumatized by his father’s death. His brother had him confined to an outwardly-attractive asylum in deepest Somerset. Here, the apparently harmless John was strait-jacketed and padlocked to the wall. John was certainly of unsound mind – ‘he would recognize Jesus in a farm labourer and fall on his knees before him’; he had a terror of being dissected, and the voices of ‘spirits’ directed his every move – but such symptoms became much worse in the asylum. Once released, Perceval made a significant recovery, and became one of several of this book’s leading characters to campaign against the system that had imprisoned him, publishing ‘an extraordinarily insightful account of his ordeal’.
The popular view of Victorian lunacy is summed up by ‘the madwoman in the attic’, but Wise points out that the victims were statistically more likely to be male than female, perhaps because men were more likely to have money. Despite this, Wise’s most eye-catching characters are women. Rosina Bulwer-Lytton, maligned wife of the hugely successful novelist Edward (he who bequeathed us such catchphrases as ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ and ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’) was relentless in her campaign to shame her husband for his attempt to confine her as insane. When he stood for parliament, Rosina held a public meeting in his constituency, dressed entirely in yellow, ‘her hair dyed yellow and her face heavily rouged’. Bulwer-Lytton took one look at the vengeful apparition, turned pale, and fled. ‘He’s guilty, he dare not face her. Three cheers for her ladyship,’ bellowed the mob.
Rosina Bulwer-Lytton is half heroine, half monster. Reading her correspondence years after her death was, wrote her grandson, like ‘opening a drawer full of dead wasps’. She lacked the inhibitions considered normal for Victorian women. She mocked the Establishment, especially the ‘sensual, selfish, pigheaded Queen’; she asserted her right to a literary career of her own in the face of her husband’s attempts to suppress it. Were such outrages against contemporary standards of femininity really symptoms of insanity, as her husband claimed?
Sex, money and religion were, of course, the most powerful ingredients in these dramas. The story of Louisa Jane Nottidge features all three, in spades. This unmarried, middle-aged daughter of a respectable wool merchant was swept into a cult, the ‘Agapemone’ (‘abode of love’). Here, the money Louisa’s father had left her was skilfully removed, a husband was chosen for her, and her sexual activities were controlled by the cult leader, the Rev. Henry Prince(soul-brother to the late Rev. Moon) within whom the Holy Spirit was said to dwell. Brainwashed she may have been, but Louisa stayed on out of choice; however much her ability to choose may have been compromised, she was hardly a lunatic, which is what her despairing mother tried to prove.
Georgina Weldon’s is perhaps the most striking case of all. Georgina lived in Tavistock House, formerly the home of Charles Dickens. A talented singer, estranged from her debt-ridden, mistress-keeping husband, she ran a musical academy for orphans whom she encouraged to yell and tear up rags to give vent to their taste for destruction. G.F.Watts, who painted Georgina, called her his ‘wild little girl’; later, her former husband, anxious to rid himself of the financial burden of maintaining her in Tavistock House, decided it would be cheaper to recast her ‘wildness’ as lunacy. Georgina was a spiritualist; she was visited by the ghost of her pet pug; she was sexually alluring to both men and women; her boisterousness embarrassed her family. But she was not mad and she spent much of her later life campaigning, in court, on paper, and in public performances, to expose the iniquities of the laws concerning both lunacy and marriage. She became a popular celebrity, and was even the ‘face’ of Pears’ Soap. ‘I am 50 today, thanks to Pears’ Soap, my complexion is only 17,’ read the strapline.
‘Something awful happened to Louisa Crookenden on her wedding night’; ‘Mrs Shuttleworth lay naked on a urine-soaked bed’; ‘John Perceval [had] been attempting to ...snap his neck by extreme jerks of the head’ – Sarah Wise knows how to grab the reader’s attention with phrases that would have done Bulwer-Lytton proud. But the book’s readability does not disguise its scholarship. This is a valuable contribution to our understanding of nineteenth-century mores. One is left with the feeling that Dickens didn’t make a great deal up.