Life in the Vic­to­rian Asy­lum

by Mark Stevens (Pen & Sword, 176 pages, £19.99) )

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - THE GUIDE -

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’

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