Life in the Victorian Asylum by Mark Stevens

by catherine on February 14, 2015

Life in the Victorian Asylum by Mark StevensThe mention of Victorian asylums often evokes images of despairing souls, incarcerated by sadistic wardens. While we might sigh with relief at our good fortune at living in more enlightened times, archivist Mark Stevens’s insightful new book offers a completely different perspective. Cleverly written in the style of a handbook for new arrivals, Stevens deftly adopts a Victorian tone, but with twenty-first-century sensibilities.

The reader is invited to join the guide on a virtual tour of a typical nineteenth-century asylum – a composite based mostly on the model of Moulsford Asylum in Berkshire. We learn about the architecture, the daily routine, and treatments offered through what is described as “the very latest in lunatic healthcare”. The guide calmly explains the possible reasons for admission, which might include “wandering aimlessly”, exhibiting “unusual facial expressions”, or “a belief that you can predict high tides”. Everything is carefully designed to provide a sanctuary from the outside world, with thoughtfully designed surroundings and professional staff. Well, not all the staff behave professionally. The guide reluctantly relates the story of the chaplain who eloped to Uxbridge with the local schoolmistress, and the porter who couldn’t resist dropping nuts down the dresses of younger colleagues.

It’s clear that the patient is treated as someone who ought to be helped, rather than a burden on the state. As our guide explains, three times the weekly allowance for a pauper in the workhouse is spent on the asylum inmate. This is in recognition that they are not responsible for their condition: they are the deserving poor. The contrast is keenly apparent in the architecture. With generously proportioned windows, elaborate brickwork, and plentiful fireplaces, the asylum presents a welcoming edifice, unlike the minatory appearance of the workhouse. And there’s no pointless labour. Instead, the patients are provided with plenty of reading material and stodgy food – a regime thought to promote well-being and an amenable temperament (it would certainly work for me).

The second half of the book includes a real-life history of Moulsford Asylum, accompanied by an illuminating discussion of Broadmoor – perhaps the most famous institution of its type. Stevens is also the author of Broadmoor Revealed, which explores the lives of its more notorious inmates. The book concludes with some compelling thoughts on the legacy of the Victorian asylum. Stevens acknowledges the views of those who believe the asylum system was simply another instrument of poor law oppression, but urges us to reconsider these institutions as the embodiment of an altruistic belief in the possibility of a better life for those suffering from mental health problems. As he argues, the current provision in the UK is woefully adequate in comparison. While none of us would want to be swaddled in cold flannels or medicated with toxic substances, such treatment was based on imperfect understanding, rather than on deliberate sadism. Victorianists will rejoice in the absorbing detail, acuity, and compassion of this book.

Life in the Victorian Asylum: The World of Nineteenth-Century Mental Health Care by Mark Stevens is published by Pen & Sword Books and currently available in hardback and ebook editions. The publisher kindly sent me a review copy.


Out now: The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell's Fiction, a beautifully written study of this Victorian author's novels.

Sowing the Wind by Eliza Lynn Linton

by catherine on February 8, 2015

Sowing the Wind by Eliza Lynn LintonEliza Lynn Linton is an unlikely heroine for me, given she is best known for her anti-feminist articles ‘The Girl of the Period’ for the Saturday Review. While her journalism alerted readers to the dangers of the New Woman in all her guises, Linton’s novels – quite literally – tell a different story.

First published in 1867, Sowing the Wind features an emancipated woman who bears a remarkable resemblance to Linton herself. Like her creator, Jane Osborn works as a journalist on a daily newspaper, managing to thrive in a masculine environment and to earn the respect of her male colleagues. Linton was actually the first woman journalist in England to earn a salary, and was described by Charles Dickens as “good for anything, and thoroughly reliable”.1 Jane works to support her mother, an endearing but unworldly woman, and her recently discovered cousin, Isola.

The bewitchingly beautiful Isola leads a stultifying existence as the wife of St. John Aylott, a tyrannical popinjay more interested in his appearance than in her happiness. He is a grotesque caricature of the Victorian husband, denying Isola her subjectivity and insisting they must share one mind – i.e. his. As an independent and capable woman, Jane is horrified by her cousin’s circumscribed life:

Sacrifice yourself for a good cause if you like – for the progress of principles, for truth, freedom, humanity – but not to foolish whims and fancies like your husband’s.2

Jane memorably dismisses St. John as an “idiotic bit of millinery”, unable to see the point of a man who is neither manly nor strong. She encourages Isola’s steady transformation from passive ornament to woman of convictions, offering both moral and financial support. Once Isola displays even a modicum of resistance to her husband’s demands, he quickly descends into paranoia, then madness. His tempers and pettifogging are contrasted with Isola’s poise and Jane’s unflagging good sense. As a few scholars have identified, there are marked similarities between Sowing the Wind and Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, published two years later.

By pathologising St. John’s behaviour, Linton emphasises that his behaviour is exceptional, rather than representative of Victorian husbands. Yet Isola’s situation is emblematic of that faced by many women before the legal reforms of the late nineteenth century. With no right to control her own money, she is entirely dependent upon the whims of a domestic god. Having recently separated from her husband, Linton was painfully aware that marriage had very different implications for men and women. She might have been terrified by the potential repercussions of a powerful women’s rights movement, but Linton was far too independent-minded to accept the role of conventional wife. Surely, it is the author who speaks through Jane when she declaims:

Ah, you may talk as you like, Isola!—babies, and love, and the graces and prettinesses are all very fine, I dare say, but give me the real solid pleasure of work — a man’s work — work that influences the world—work that is power! To sit behind the scenes and pull the strings[.]3

Jane Osborn is an intriguing avatar. She is described as a “rude, unlovely boy-woman”, and her colleagues call her “good fellow”, Jack, or Johnnie O. Her ‘otherness’ is stressed throughout the narrative – particularly her unkempt appearance and refusal to acknowledge male superiority – but she is undeniably the hero(ine) of the story. Almost twenty years later, Linton would perform an act of literary transvestism by telling her life story as a man in The Autobiography of Christopher Kirkland (1885). Perhaps influenced by the work of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, she felt that she was the soul of one sex in the body of the other. With lesbianism yet to be or understood, she could express her sexuality only through male-identification.

By the end of the novel, Jane is still an outsider, while Isola’s appropriately feminine behaviour is rewarded. Although Linton isn’t making an especially radical statement about marriage itself, the novel is, nevertheless, highly provocative in presenting a clear alternative for women. Jane might think wistfully of a life partner, but, like Linton, she’d rather be single than married to a man like St. John Aylott. Her attraction to Isola, revealed in tantalising hints, cannot be recognised – instead, her passion must be channelled into work.

Quite apart from Linton’s exploration of sexuality and gender, Sowing the Wind is also a joyous example of the sensation novel, with themes of inheritance, concealed identity, and miscegenation. There’s even a parrot. Linton might be infuriating, but she’s never dull.

Sowing the Wind by Eliza Lynn Linton, edited by Deborah T. Meem and Kate Holterhoff, is published by Victorian Secrets and available in paperback and Kindle editions.

The cover photo for this edition was very kindly provided by Paul Frecker, who runs The Library of Nineteenth-Century Photography. The image actually shows a carte de visite of a man suffering from toothache (a curious choice), but I thought it suggested St. John Aylott’s mental anguish.

  1. Fix Anderson, Nancy, Women Against Women in Victorian England: Life of Eliza Lynn Linton (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), p.66 []
  2. Linton, Eliza Lynn, Sowing the Wind, ed. by Deborah T Meem and Kate Holterhoff (Brighton: Victorian Secrets, 2015) []
  3. Sowing the Wind, p. 248 []


Out now: The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell's Fiction, a beautifully written study of this Victorian author's novels.

Elizabeth Gaskell and the Meanings of Home

January 13, 2015

Imagine if your house was given a £2.5m makeover and you weren’t around to enjoy it? Well, that’s what’s happened to Elizabeth Gaskell. Her home at 84 Plymouth Grove, Manchester has just reopened to the public after extensive renovations. The Grade II* listed villa had been languishing in a state of disrepair since the death […]

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End of Year Book Meme 2014

December 31, 2014

Twenty-fourteen is almost behind us, so it’s time for me to account for my reading activities over the past year. Also, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish all of my visitors a very happy and bookish 2015. How many books read in 2013? Only 92 this year, which is probably the fewest since […]

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Life According to Literature 2014

December 24, 2014

The festive season is upon us once more, so it is time for the annual Life According to Literature blog meme. I’ve been rather slack with my reading this year – only 86 rather than the usual 100+ books – but there’s still a week to go. Wishing you a merry and book-filled Yuletide. THE […]

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Seventy Years a Showman by ‘Lord’ George Sanger

November 15, 2014

One of the many joys of delving into the nineteenth century is meeting the numerous vibrant characters who inhabited it. I first encountered ‘Lord’ George Sanger when researching the Hyde Park celebrations that marked Queen Victoria’s accession. Over nine days in June 1838, Sanger and his circus family thrilled the crowds with learned pigs and […]

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The Year of the Trollope

October 25, 2014

If you thought 2012 was exciting, hold on to your hat, as 2015 is the year of the Trollope. Yes, next spring marks Trollope’s bicentenary and the anticipation is palpable. Radio 4 has already started celebrating with dramatisations of some of his more popular novels, including The Eustace Diamonds. OUP republished handsome editions of the Palliser […]

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Introducing The Digital Researcher

July 1, 2014

In an interruption to the usual broadcast, I bring you news from the 21st century. When I’m not running Victorian Secrets, I spend quite a bit of time delivering digital skills workshops for researchers. I show them software that will make their lives easier, teach them how to create blogs, and explain the mysteries of Twitter. […]

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George Eliot: The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes

June 5, 2014

Although George Eliot declared biography to be “a disease of English literature,” it hasn’t yet been eradicated, and there have been almost 20 attempts to tell the story of her life and career. The number of Victorian women writers who enjoyed both critical and commercial success can be counted on the fingers of one hand, […]

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The Victorian Guide to Sex by Fern Riddell

May 25, 2014

Although Queen Victoria was supposedly prudish, she popped out nine tiny Saxe-Coburgs and the population more than doubled during her reign. We might think of the Victorians as sexually repressed, but they were clearly at it like stoats. In The Victorian Guide to Sex, Fern Riddell synthesises a wealth of material from marriage guides, newspapers, and […]

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