Sanity on Trial

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Historians of 19th-century psychiatry have mostly focused their attention on the Victorian mausoleums that entombed tens of thousands of the insane, physically and symbolically cutting them off from any sustained intercourse with the society from which they had been expelled. The madhouse, however, enjoyed a dubious reputation from its first appearance on the social scene in the 18th century, and the rich, who had the means to fund alternative coping mechanisms, more often than not sought to avoid confining their disturbed relations in such stigmatized and stigmatizing social spaces.

Yet madness at home, managed within the confines of the household, has remained all but invisible. The well-to-do families that sought to hide what was seen as a source of shame and social disgrace did so with remarkable effectiveness, shielding what went on, not just from their contemporaries, but also from those who in our own age make a living from recreating the past. Akihito Suzuki, a brilliant Japanese historian trained in Britain, has now succeeded in penetrating this secret world, and has produced a vivid recreation of the roles of the family in the identification, the treatment, and sometimes even the reintegration of the insane into the larger society.

Crucial to his ability to do so has been the survival of accounts of a most peculiar English legal proceeding, the lunacy inquisition, conducted at great expense for much of the 19th century in front of a nicely named set of officials, “Masters in Lunacy.” What prompted these elaborate hearings, replete with family tensions and costly, bewigged barristers, was the threat, on the one hand, to the liberty of the alleged rich or aristocratic lunatic, and on the other, to the property that the madman might dissipate.

By turns wrenching, dramatic, disturbing, and humorous, the records of these high-stakes dramas provide the raw materials for a subtle and revealing, yet thoroughly entertaining analysis of the colliding worlds of reason and unreason. Suzuki’s book opens with a bang. In February 1823, the near relations of the Earl of Ports- mouth, seeking to annul his marriage to his lawyer’s daughter, Mary Anne Hanson, launched a lunacy inquisition. Legally essential if these people were to secure his property, the proceedings ripped the veil off his lordship’s hijinks. Morbidly fond of brutality, blood, and death, the Earl whipped horses and servants with an equal lack of mercy, rejoiced at the funerals of strangers, frequented slaughterhouses where he gleefully killed animals with a specially designed axe, and, most scandalously of all, though impotent himself, lay on his bed while his wife and his lover engaged in “criminal conversation,” periodically encouraging them to break off to beat and abuse him.

Not all the materials Suzuki examines are so titillating. Taken together, however, and placed in the hands of someone who displays a remarkable sensitivity to social nuance, coupled with an extraordinary ability to tease out the implications embedded in his evidence, they form the basis of a profoundly original and compelling piece of social history.

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