Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Lady in the Madhouse

Thursday, May 13, 2010
Loretta reports:

The re-release of "The Mad Earl's Bride," seems the right moment to look at madhouses.  (At left is Hogarth's view of Bedlam, from the series, The Rake's Progress.)

In 1728--100 years before the time of my story--Daniel Defoe had this to say:

… the vile practice now so much in vogue among the better sort as they are called, but the worst sort in fact; namely, the sending their wives to madhouses, at every whim or dislike, that they may be more secure and undisturbed in their debaucheries; which wicked custom is got to such a head, that the number of private madhouses in and about London are considerably increased within these few years.
This is the height of barbarity and injustice in a Christian country, it is a clandestine inquisition, nay worse.
…In my humble opinion, all private madhouses should be suppressed at once, and it should be no less than felony to confine any person under pretence of madness without due authority.
For the cure of those who are really lunatic, licensed madhouses should be constituted in convenient parts of the town, which houses should be subject to proper visitation and inspection, nor should any person be sent to a madhouse without due reason, inquiry, and authority.
A lady of known beauty, virtue, and fortune, nay more, of wisdom, not flashy wit, was, in the prime of her youth and beauty, and when her senses were perfectly sound, carried by her husband in his coach as to the opera; but the coachman had other instructions, and drove directly to a madhouse, where the poor innocent lady was no sooner introduced, under pretence of calling by the way to see some pictures he had a mind to buy, but the key was turned upon her, and she left a prisoner by her faithless husband, who while his injured wife was confined and used with the utmost barbarity, he, like a profligate wretch, ran through her fortune with strumpets, and then basely, under pretence of giving her liberty, extorted her to make over her jointure, which she had no sooner done but he laughed in her face, and left her to be as ill-used as ever. This he soon ran through, and (happily for the lady) died by the justice of heaven in a salivation his debauches had obliged him to undergo.
During her confinement, the villain of the madhouse frequently attempted her chastity; and
the more she repulsed him the worse he treated her, till at last he drove her mad in good earnest. Her distressed brother, who is fond of her to the last degree, now confines her in part of his own house, treating her with great tenderness, but has the mortification to be assured by the ablest physicians that his poor sister is irrecoverably distracted.

From Augusta Triumphans: or, the Way to Make London the Most Flourishing City in the Universe.  The entire work is well worth a read.

Though acts regulating the treatment of insane were passed through the 18th and 19th centuries, the above practice continued, unfortunately, well past the time of my story.  Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White is one of the more famous examples.  (The poster illustration is courtesy The Victorian Web, scanned image by Philip V. Allingham.)


Mme.Tresbeau said...

What a tragic entry! The history of the treatment of mental illness, and the abuses associated with it, is shameful. I shudder every time I see that Hogarth engraving with the ladies waving their fans as they come to view the Bedlam insane for their amusement.

Rowenna said...

If I can find anything comical in this, it's that Defoe recommended that the institutions be placed in "convenient" parts of town.

But, joking aside, the tragedy of sane women shut up by their husbands is unimaginable. How horrific...and terrifying the depravity of a system that would allow it.

GentlewomanThief said...

What a fascinating and sad account - such cruelty some men displayed to their wives. It really is awful.

From a literary point of view, we looked at 'The Madwoman in the Attic' during my BA, particularly with reference to Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea. I find it a very interesting area of literary critique, which I think would also be relevant to anyone writing historical fiction (or historical fantasy, like myself).

Jane O said...

Terrifying, but I am not at all sure the lady's abuse would be impossible today. It would require corruption, but it always did.

That's a really depressing thought. I think I'll go eat a cookie.

LorettaChase said...

It seems to me that the kinds of people who'd go to lunatic asylums for entertainment are the same ones who'd go to hangings. I love history, but I hate the part about finding so much evidence of mistreatment of women. Still, I hope I presented the situation in my story in a balanced way. There were "enlightened" treatments at the time, upsetting by our standards. But then we've only to look back a few years to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Wonder what people will think 50 years from now about our current treatments for mental disorders...

Judy said...

60 years ago or so a relative of mine was confined in a state hospital in Massachusetts. Overcrowding was a key problem, as 1300 patients were confined in an asylum designed for 500 souls. ECT was a common weapon, and at that time rudimentary, with people's entire bodies shaking and occasionally bones were broken. Those who died in the asylum were buried in a cemetery with only a number on a small marker to commemorate them. Technology had made the treatment experience much more damaging with the advent of ECT.

Now, looking back to 1950, we seem to have come a long way, with parity in insurance coverage a big step. As medications become more refined, and their long term effects are studied, many more hopefully will find an end to that particular suffering.

Thank you for posting this heartbreaking story - 300 years later we have come a long way, but in many ways we have a long way to go in the treatment of mental illness. Sorry I jumped on the soapbox but this is an important topic to me

Jenny Girl said...

I worked at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. It is the nation's first hospital and as such, had one of the earliest psych wards. The old part of the hospital is surrounded by a dry moat, with windows so you can see the basement. Well, back in the day, they would open the windows and people could pay 5 cents to stand on the other side of the moat and watch the insane on Sundays. The distance was not great either, so it wasup close and personal.

Stephen Girard had his wife committed there, but she really was insane. Her ghost supposedly haunts the old section for time to time but I never saw her.

I have researched the history of mental health treatment and it is always a sad and unbelievable story. That people would do that to others. Thank goodness we have evolved somewhat over the years.
Great post as usual gals!

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