The Possibility of Sanity
Inconvenient People, Lunacy Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England
Bodley Head, 2012
When one considers madness in the Victorian era, women in attics come to mind, along with grand homes set alight by bright young wives with too much passion. Sarah Wise’s enthralling Inconvenient People goes a long way in reshaping these images, often highlighting case studies in which women are responsible for putting away their male connections, or where females are not of unsound mind at all, but rather, as Wise implies, merely inconvenient.
What works particularly well about Wise’s project is her ability to take a substantial body of research and turn it into a piece that is truly fitting for the subject: something reminiscent of a medical narrative. During the nineteenth-century, when the voices of patients were gaining privilege as a result of a shift towards a more empirical approach to clinical discourse, it was the account of the afflicted that increasingly figured in the process of diagnosis and even of committal. As Wise expounds the realities of psychiatry and institutionalization in the Victorian era, she does so with the aim of pointing out its exploitative qualities, simultaneously exposing the voices the of victimized. “Mad doctors” and relatives who stood to gain from the incapacitation of a “loved one” often conspired as their financial interests aligned.
For Wise, this world of madness has a literary quality. She singles out the figure of Bryan Waller Proctor, for example, who served as Lunacy Commissioner from 1832. Proctor moved in the same literary circles as Thackeray and Wilkie Collins, and was popular with them. In 1845, he was responsible for drafting new lunacy legislation with Robert Wilfred Skefington, Lewis Carroll’s uncle. Wise writes that during this period,
The fabric of the new legislation was woven by two men who would go on to become oblique influences on some classics of Victorian literature. Lawyer Bryan Waller Proctor, credited with devising many of the clauses, was also ‘Barry Cornwall’, a minor poet of the Romantic school. Proctor would have Vanity Fair ‘affectionately dedicated’ to him by Thackeray in 1847-8. Proctor was also suspected of being ‘Currer Bell’, author of Jane Eyre, until Charlotte Brontë broke cover in 1848; no doubt his expertise on lunacy matters contributed to the notion that he was creator of poor Bertha Mason.
Though Proctor was not responsible for Bertha Mason, the widely held assumption was that he helped to shape the literary character of madness in nineteenth-century society. Lunacy may have been a damning diagnosis, but it was also a vibrant part of popular culture.
Inconvenient People succeeds in striking a fine balance between narrative elegance and scholarly rigor. Wise is scrupulous in her composition, piecing together personal accounts and historical records, creating vignettes of unfounded lunacy, leaving the reader with striking and memorable images that contradict commonly held notions of madness. Her sketch of the Agapemone Christian movement and its “Abode of Love” is particularly compelling. Wise asserts that “religious fanaticism was the most frequent cause of insanity in women of all degrees of intellect,” but this is brought into question as she systematically unwinds the rituals of the Agapemone group, and the fate of the Nottidge sisters. Louisa Nottidge and three of her sisters were “more devout than respectability required,” and also significantly wealthier than the average Victorian lady. The combination of these factors made Louisa and her sisters prime candidates for conversion to a church seeking to expand. Wise untangles the web of deception that ensued after the sisters’ first meeting with Prince, the leader of the sect. She details the physicality of the Abode, its churchyard where members were buried in unmarked graves, and the horrific sexual abuses that were commonly committed by Prince against the unassuming creatures he coaxed into his fold. Wise negotiates these bizarre details with the sort of tact and authority that allows the reader to suspend disbelief and entertain the possibility of the sisters’ sanity.
The story of the Nottidge sisters and the Abode of Love concludes with the return of Louisa’s inheritance to her family after her death and the decline of the Agapemone movement. With the conclusion of these events, as well as the other case studies in Inconvenient People, Wise seems to be interested not only in offering instances of ill-founded incarceration for her readers to consider, but in piecing together fundamental moments of change. That the £6,000 Louisa gave to the Abode was awarded back to her family suggests that Prince and his cohorts were at least partially responsible for her “religious delusions.”
Wise’s treatment of the Lytton scandal serves a similar purpose. Rosina publically denounced her husband, Edward Bulwer-Lytton when he was running as a parliamentary candidate in 1858, and was promptly restrained and deemed a lunatic. John Foster and Charles Dickens expressed, if not disapproval, cold reserve towards their former friend upon the institutionalization of Rosina. The details of the scandal may add up to the convenient disposal of an inconvenient wife, but once again, this moment in Victorian social history is indicative of something much larger. As Wise writes, “the Lytton scandal is one of the earliest nineteenth-century lunacy panics that identified women’s rights as deserving particular mention.” Lady Lytton’s plight coincides with a momentous shift in women’s rights. Wise is quick to point out that Rosina could have “used her pen to assist the various campaigns… had she not poured her energies into her solitary vengeance” upon her husband. But even if she could have positioned her talent and public profile more effectively, her story was still a part of a then revolutionary cause.
Inconvenient People manages to convey the sort of fear and the sense of spectacle that surrounded madness in the Victorian period, making the threat of unjustified incarceration feel as jarring now as it did 150 years ago. Through the twelve challenged cases of lunacy that Wise presents and then meticulously explicates, a sort of unmasking occurs, and the suppressed voices of Victorian madness are revealed.
Kalika Sands is reading for a DPhil in English at Wolfson College, Oxford.