Mental Disability in Victorian England: The Earlswood Asylum, 1847-1901

Mental Disability in Victorian England: The Earlswood Asylum, 1847-1901 – Book Review

Gerald N. Grob

Mental Disability in Victorian England: The Earlswood Asylum, 1847-1901. By David Wright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. xii plus 244 pp. $65.00).

Since the 1960s the histories of psychiatry and mental illnesses have become vibrant and controversial subjects. They arouse powerful passions and give rise to disagreements that are on occasion marked by a lack of civility. One the one side are those who emphasize the social control functions of psychiatry and insist that the essential function of mental hospitals was to incarcerate rather than treat individuals and to reinforce capitalist hegemony by emphasizing that nonproductive individuals would be placed outside the borders of society. On the other side are those who maintain that the presence of mental disorders created severe problems for both families and communities; that hospitals served an important role by providing care when other alternatives were lacking; that families played an important role in commitment; and that solutions to intractable problems were by no means available.

Oddly enough, individuals identified as idiots, retarded, or mentally disabled (to use historically accurate if politically incorrect terms) aroused much less scholarly interest. Admittedly, articles and a few monographs have appeared during the past two decades, but they do not compare with the multitude of works dealing with mental illnesses. There is some evidence that this is beginning to change. David Wright’s Mental Disease in Victorian England may be a portent of things to come. Ostensibly a history of the Earlswood Asylum from its opening in 1847 to the turn of the century, the book is actually a study of English social policy toward dependent groups, including the mentally disabled as well as the mentally ill. Eschewing ideological claims and emphasizing wide research in both primary and secondary sources, Wright has provided an account that should stimulate further research into the history of dependent groups.

In the early nineteenth century the absence of a major constituency pushing for confinement meant that idiot children, unlike the insane, had few institutional alternatives. The household of the parents was the provider of care, with the burden of responsibility falling on mothers and elder daughters. By the 1840s, however, an informal campaign for “idiocy reform” had begun, leading to the founding of the Earlswood Asylum. Yet, as Wright so ably demonstrates, the decision to resort to institutional care was complex. The absence of older siblings in poor families and high migration patterns (thus separating families from relations) predisposed them to favor institutional rather than community care. But institutionalization was not for an indefinite period of time. Of slightly more than 2,000 inmates admitted between 1853 and 1866 to Earlswood, only 18 percent stayed more than ten years; the bulk remained between two and ten years. The asylum, according to Wright, was not a “a place where families rid themselve s of unwanted members”; rather it represented “a resource used strategically by poor households intent on overcoming periods of impoverishment.” These institutions, therefore, “were only one dimension in a lifelong endeavour to care for the dependent and the disabled, even during the apex of asylum provision.” (197)

Nor did the staff at the Earlswood Asylum represent the “unemployables” of Victorian society, as some historians maintain. The attractions of asylum nursing, according to Wright, became a means of recruiting women from domestic work, and the skills attained in asylums provided opportunities to move up the occupational scale.

In its origin, the Earlswood Asylum was intended to educate idiot and imbecile children in domestic and vocational skills and thus return them to their families and communities. Curiously enough, the very existence of institutional alternatives may have contributed to the lowering “of the tolerance of families and communities to care for their dependent kin and neighbours, thus leading to a century of segregation and physical isolation.” (202) Equally paradoxical, the faith in education rested on a belief in the organicist origins of mental disability, namely, that physical defects were hampering individual development. Idiocy, in other words, was being framed as a disease of the mind. By the end of the century the medical model of mental disability began to fall under the emerging Social Darwinist belief in the hereditarian nature of idiocy, which in turn created a receptivity for eugenic measures to deal with the alleged danger of the feebleminded.

Wright’s book is an important contribution to the history of the mentally disabled. The questions that he asks and the answers that he provide offer a nuanced and sophisticated account of the history of the care and treatment of the mentally disabled. Nevertheless, his book could have even been more compelling had he adopted a somewhat different strategy. He is so concerned with dealing with historiographical issues raised by other scholars that he loses sight of the alleged subject of his book, namely, the Earlswood Asylum. The burden of following the development of this fascinating and important institution is unnecessarily placed upon the reader. A more coherent writing strategy that provided a clear chronological account of the institution would have enhanced the interpretive value of his book.

The publication of Mental Disability in Victorian England suggests that younger scholars are beginning to abandon the intellectual framework associated with such figures as Michel Foucault, whose powerful writings shaped the thinking of scholars from a variety of disciplines. Seeking to explain psychiatry’s relationships to the sources of power and domination, Foucalt developed an alluring reductionist interpretation that was both coherent and symmetrical even though lacking any kind of evidentiary foundation. The importance of Wright’s book is that it illuminates a subject by grounding historical explanation on a foundation of empirical data.

In his conclusion Wright poses an important question. The rush to close institutions for the mentally deficient (and mentally ill as well) has left this population “physically integrated but socially isolated.” A culture that places a premium on educational achievement and self-sufficiency, after all, also devalues mental disability. “With the emergence of political ideologies which eschew corporate responsibility for those who cannot earn an independent living,” he asks, “will the successful campaign to close down the last vestiges of institutional care and treatment for people with mental disabilities turn out to be a hollow victory?” (203) Only the future will provide an answer to a question that is fraught with tragedy.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Journal of Social History

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