The nineteenth century saw repeated public scares about sane individuals being locked away in lunatic asylums. Newspapers reported stories about innocent men and women being attacked on the streets, forced into carriages and locked away in awful conditions. This book examines 12 cases which reveal the shocking true stories behind the Victorian façade of decorum and respectability.
Many people have of course heard of the ‘madwoman in the attic’, the inconvenient person kept hidden away for fear of bringing shame to the family. Wise examines 12 stories that tell genuinely frightening stories of people who locked away their own family members in order to get their hands on an inheritance or property, and of doctors who were willing to sign a lunacy certificate if it meant another patient would be paying the fees to stay in their asylum.
In so doing Wise exposes the myth that it was more likely to be women who were accused of madness and locked away. In reality it was more likely to happen to men; the motive for locking someone away was usually the gain of wealth and property, which women generally lacked in the Victorian period.
Wise brings us into a truly terrifying world where any deviation from the norm could be perceived as insanity. Such was the fear of having your family tainted by madness that, at the first sign of eccentricity, you were likely to be confronted by doctors questioning your sanity. If you wished to marry someone from a lower class, if you held unconventional religious beliefs, or if you were perceived as showing insufficient affection for your children, you could be incarcerated without further ado.
Wise has clearly undertaken a wealth of research and her knowledge of the time period means that Victorian society comes alive on the page. Each story is told with incredible detail and flair, so that the reader feels like they are actually standing there watching the events unfold.
Wise makes liberal use of actual quotes from the people we are reading about so we feel as though we get to know them a lot more than if we were just reading about them; here we get to read their actual words. Many of the characters, known as they were for their eccentricities, are fascinating to read about; they dared to challenge the norms of their times and were harshly punished for doing so. One of my personal favourites was Mrs Catherine Cumming, a woman who, after being cleared of charges of lunacy, set about destroying the reputations of those who accused her.
Despite the often horrible and disturbing subject matter of the book (stories include a man kept chained to the floor, naked and starving, in a room by his brother-in-law for eight years), there are moments of humour that help to alleviate the darkness.
If I had a complaint about this book it’s that its detail becomes a little overwhelming at times. There were so many characters that it became difficult to keep up with them all. The stories are also a little repetitive, and I felt there were times when Wise became bogged down in legal jargon.
Overall, this was a very interesting book. It is not an easy read; in fact it is downright harrowing at times to think that these things actually happened. But I would recommend it to anyone interested in the Victorian period and, in particular, the shadowy underworld lurking beneath nineteenth century polite society.