Who Do You Think You Are?


JULIE JAKEWAY discusses her book Manifestat­ions of Madness: Women’s Voices From the Norfolk County Lunatic Asylum


How did you come to write the book?

I did an MA in local history at the University of Leicester, for which my dissertati­on was on the Norfolk County Lunatic Asylum; Norfolk Record Office has a wonderful archive of documents about it. Then a friend of mine who was writing a book about Norfolk women and borrowed my dissertati­on suggested that I turn it into a book. I decided that the female patients were particular­ly interestin­g because so many of them were admitted with conditions that were attributed to gender-specific causes.

What did you find out about life in the asylum?

County asylums were intended for the poor – for those who couldn’t afford to pay for treatment. They actually provided women with clean clothes, regular sleep patterns and meals, and work that was suitable for their conditions. This was quite amazing for them, because in their normal lives they hadn’t enough to eat, were living in absolute poverty and were usually surrounded by an enormous family of children, so a few months in the asylum really was asylum for them – a time in which to recover and regain their strength. In the period I was looking at, from 1851 to 1870, the asylum system – in Norfolk, anyway – was very good. Comments by the medical staff show that they were always looking for ways of helping patients to return to their own lives, to their personal situations. They’re very caring, trying to assist their patients, who often came in with physical problems as well as mental problems; these were always given precedence so they were physically as well as they could be.

What happened to the female patients after they left the asylum?

I searched the census records to discover where they were in the following years, whether they had returned to their family, and whether they had more children, to see how their lives continued after their time in the asylum. Of course, there were tragedies. Some women were admitted with conditions linked to frequent pregnancie­s. They recovered, they came out, they had another baby and they went back in. Sometimes they died in the asylum having contracted tuberculos­is. Of course it’s impossible to say whether that was due to their poor diet and living conditions, or whether they contracted it while they were in the asylum.

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