There are certain words, such as asylum and mental illness, which to this day are still publicly misunderstood and remain a taboo subject for the vast majority of people. Nowadays, asylums are well known for being “an institution for the care of people who are ”, but the Victorian asylums which were constructed in vast quantities between the 1800 and 1900, earned a different reputation entirely - a reputation that Victorian novelists thrived on!
Although the intentions behind the asylums were good, the reality of life in a Victorian asylum was that of one in prison with patients being chained up, held under very strict surveillance and some may say tortured as controversial treatments such as lobotomy were tested on them. As the years passed however, more asylums were built with specific emphasis on patient safety and extensive gardens to allow more freedom and aid their treatments. This significant change in the treatment and care of the mentally ill patients was due to a man named William Tuke, an asylum director, who believed recovery was more feasible if patients were treated more like children than animals. This introduced the idea of running an asylum like a strict household so that sanity would be restored through self-discipline.
|High Royds Asylum, Yorkshire|
It is clear that conditions in Victorian asylums improved significantly, but what if some of the patients within the asylum weren't mentally ill at all?
A scary thought right! Scarier still is the fact that there are many examples of women being incarcerated in asylums when they were of complete sound and mind. In the Victorian patriarchal society, a woman that rebelled against her father or husband was at great risk of being sent to an asylum and declared insane, with no opportunity to contest the allegation. David Wright recognized “the confinement of the insane…as a strategic response of households” (Wright, 137) implying that a troublesome member of a family was often removed to an asylum as an easy option and in some cases to uphold the family’s reputation. The idea of putting a sane woman into an asylum soon entered Victorian novels; an example of which being The Woman in White and in this case the character Laura was admitted to the asylum so her husband could benefit financially. Although the plot is complex, Laura’s husband simply used his influence and “unlimited authority” (Hammerton, 100) to have a perfectly sane woman put away into an asylum with no proof she had an unsettled mind. The Woman in White begins with the sentence “[T]his is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve” (Collins, 1) which demonstrates the power of man's influence within society and the mistreatment Laura went through at the hands of her husband. It could also be perceived as Laura enduring the torture of being admitted to an asylum because the treatment she will have been subjected to and people she will have been surrounded by could have tortured a sane mind.
|Model Head for the exhibit at Henry Wellcome's Historical Medical Museum|
Victorian literature soon became fixated on the idea of the ‘mad woman in the attic’ and possibly the most famous mad woman character is Bertha, Mr Rochester’s wife in Jane Eyre. The figurine head above, made for the exhibit at Henry Wellcome’s Historical Medical Museum, was supposed to depict the stereotypical ‘mad woman’, but her appearance mirrors Brontë’s description of Bertha from the “quantity of dark, grizzled hair” and the way her eyes “gazed wildly at her visitors” (Brontë, 338). This idea of a mad woman looking dishevelled and wild like an animal made for good literary reading for both contemporary and modern readers, but arguably did not show the majority of women suffering from mental illness accurately - most of them looking the same as you or I! However, Jane Eyre did represent the dangers of keeping the mentally unstable locked away in a domestic sphere, especially when they were characterized by erratic behaviour and could be a danger to themselves or others. This sounds like it should be common sense, but during the Victorian period especially, people were ashamed of mentally unstable family members and tried to hide them away within their households, just like Mr Rochester did in Jane Eyre, or tried to care for them by themselves. People were encouraged to seek help for their ill loved ones and some could say Jane Eyre would have influenced people in their decisions to seek medical aid for those in need. Although within literary works Victorian women suffering from mental illness seemed to become frightening, untamed creatures, the majority of asylums offered a place of safety and humane, respectful treatment which most women admitted to the asylum thrived from.
One example of Victorian literary work which seems to strike a balance between the sane and insane is The Yellow Wallpaper. The narrator is a highly expressive woman, who has a vast imagination but when her husband, who is a doctor, insists she become more passive and less creative she soon becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in her house. The narrator states
“There are things in that paper which nobody knows but me, or ever will. Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day. It is always the same shape, only very numerous. And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern” (Gilman, p 36).
This quote is from the middle of the short story and some could read this as the turning point from sanity to insanity as it is clear the narrator has slipped further into her fantasy world. The woman she sees trying to escape from the patterned wallpaper is her imagination's reflection of herself, trying and failing to remove herself from the domestic pattern which is her life. There is an example of a woman who was treated at The Imbeciles Asylum in Caterham who “became obsessed of netting materials, and it was noticed that when occupied with these she was much quieter” and this is also shown in Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper as the narrator's obsession with the wallpaper leads her to appear quieter, passive and more tame in the eyes of her husband, John. This example comes from an article in the magazine Good Words, where William Gilbert visited the asylum in Caterham and witness first hand the woman with her netting materials and the peace it seemed to give her. This review of the asylum and the people within will have shown Victorian readers an alternative view of asylum patients - different to the scary tales literature promoted - that the patients are still people. However, to be controversial, after reading The Yellow Wallpaper one could question what was really going on in the woman's mind when she was looking at the netting?
The asylums are depicted in Victorian Literature as dark, scary places filled with animalistic, dangerous creatures which definitely makes for a good, thrilling read for both contemporary and modern readers alike. However, whilst researching the history of these asylums, it becomes clear all was not as it appeared. Husbands admitted wives to asylums to be rid of them, some mentally ill women were locked away in domestic households to avoid embarrassment and others were treated as though they were insane because they had a vast imagination which in this day and age would be celebrated, not condemned. Victorian literature was able to tackle the taboo subject of mental illness and experiment with it in stories, covering every angle of the topic. These Victorian ideas on asylums and mental illness are still recognised today, displaying just how powerful and influential they are.
I mean come on, who hasn't heard a story about a mad woman in the attic?!
Brontë, Charlotte; Jane Eyre, Penguin Classics, 2006
Collins, Wilkie; The Woman in White, Courier Corporation, 2013
Gilbert, William; Good Words, 1872 (http://www.workhouses.org.uk/MAB-Caterham/)
Gilman, Charlotte; The Yellow Wallpaper, Ohio University Press, 2006
Hammerton, A. James; Cruelty and Companionship: Conflict in the Nineteenth-Century
Married Life, London: Routledge, 1992
Wright, David; Social History of Medicine: ‘Getting Out of the Asylum: Understanding the Confinement of the Insane in the Nineteenth Century’, Oxford University Press (1997), Volume 28 Issue 4 November 2015
High Royds Asylum, Yorkshire:
Zombola Photography http://www.theartsdesk.com/tv/mental-history-madhouse-bbc-four
The Model Head:http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/objects/display.aspx?id=92685&image=5
The Yellow Wallpaper (Top): http://withinareverie88.deviantart.com/art/The-Yellow-Wallpaper-204031849
The Yellow wallpaper (Bottom): http://larissa.booklikes.com/post/81744/the-yellow-wallpaper-short-story