6th Dec 2012
Inconvenient People by Sarah Wise
Of all the fascinating insights that Sarah Wise’s riveting study of lunacy in nineteenth-century England offers, one of the most startling is her argument that it was men, not women, who were most vulnerable to charges of insanity during the Victorian era.
That is perhaps not what many of us – myself included – might have been inclined to think. But like all the best historical studies, Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors is both engaging and challenging.
During a period when mental illness was even less well-understood or codified than it is today, it was those who possessed wealth, power or property who were most likely to be accused of being unsound mind – usually by family members out to get their hands on those assets for themselves.
Women, far less likely to own property or run a covetable business, were correspondingly far less likely to be declared insane than men. Simply put, it was often much more useful to have a man decreed to be mad.
Wild’s book shows how Victorian Britain’s legal system, medical establishment and society gradually came to form ideas about mental illness that we might recognise as approaching those of the modern age.
It was nothing if not a process of trial and error – or perhaps that should be error and trial: in several of the vividly-described and meticulously researched case studies that make up Inconvenient People, we see individuals accused of being of unsound mind who must fight their case before the Lunacy Commission (created in 1845) to prove their sanity.
In other cases, we see sad and terrible examples of neglect of very ill people, with personal, institutional and systematic failures all to blame to varying degrees. In still others we see genuine compassion and reform in action.
What did lunacy mean, and how could it be identified? Where does the boundary lie between eccentricity and madness? Whose authority should be trusted, and who should be entrusted with the care of the mentally ill?
These are difficult questions to answer even today, and they were even trickier in the 19th century. With each carefully-chosen example, in which all the characters and situations brought to life with a novelist’s touch, Wise shows how our contemporary understanding of mental illness – particularly as codified in law and medical practice – were formed, bit by bit, from painful experience.
There are examples taken from literature too, and other cultural reference points – Jane Eyre, naturally, gets a look-in – and even here, Wise succeeds in bringing fresh insight to this most over-analysed of novels and its ‘madwoman in the attic’.
The illustrations, as with the rest of the source material, are top-notch. This is an exceptionally well-researched, engaging and accessibly-written work of social history about a difficult but vitally important topic – and one of the best non-fiction reads of 2012.
Recommended for: Historians, amateur and professional.
Other recommended reading: Asti Hustvedt’s Medical Muses, another of the year’s stand-out non-fiction releases, is a study of the early days of psychiatry in nineteenth-century Paris.