Life in the Victorian Asylum
by Mark Stevens (Pen & Sword, 176 pages, £19.99) )
Stevens follows his book on Broadmoor with this more general overview of county asylums in the 19th century. The first part, he explains, is an “imitation of a modern treatment guide such as might be written by a patient liaison service today… it adopts a Victorian tone and perspective.” It covers topics including the birth of the asylum, patient admissions, diagnosis, accommodation, daily routine and staffing. Stevens draws almost entirely on one asylum – Moulsford in Berkshire – but includes an incredible wealth of detail. This is wonderfully fascinating and useful background information for any genealogist.
However, presenting this information as a guide for Victorian patients was a mistake. Stevens adopts the persona of an asylum superintendent and narrates in the second person, a feat of ventriloquism very difficult for any writer. As a result, his book swings uneasily between being a compendium of facts and a piece of fiction. There is another problem with this approach: it doesn’t allow Stevens to question his sources and provide any wider historical perspectives.
Part two gives a brief history of Moulsford asylum, a note about Broadmoor, and some small patient case histories. There is also a short chapter on the development of asylums and mental health care after the Victorian period, which is one of the most fascinating sections of the book – perhaps because it provides more context. Stevens ends by urging his readers to become ‘friends of the Victorian asylum’ by carrying out their own research and visiting asylum buildings. Unfortunately, he does not include a research guide. Overall, Life in the Victorian Asylum is a useful general reference book on asylums, but not a compelling read, and the lack of context and advice for researchers is a great shame.
Kate Tyte is an archivist and expert on mental health history
An illustration depicting the ‘ types of insanity’