Unbosoming

Peter Barham

  • Madness at Home: The Psychiatrist, the Patient and the Family in England 1820-60 by Akihito Suzuki
    California, 260 pp, £32.50, March 2006, ISBN 0 520 24580 6

In February 1823, readers of the Times were treated to a detailed account of the goings-on in the home of the third Earl of Portsmouth and his wife of ten years, Mary Anne Hanson. She had for some time been having an affair with William Rowland Alder, a lawyer. The pair abused and mocked Lord Portsmouth, both physically and mentally, even making him a spectator to their fornication. These details came to light through a legal instrument known as a ‘commission in lunacy’, whose roots go back to the 14th century, but which became prominent in the 19th, before fading away after the First World War. It was used mainly by wealthy families intent on demonstrating that one of their members was incapable of managing his affairs. Women, too, were sometimes subjected to commissions in lunacy, but less often, since married women were not held to have property rights that anyone might wish to divest them of. In the Lord Portsmouth case, the purpose was to prove that he had been incapable of managing his own affairs at the time he married Mary Anne, and that the marriage should therefore be dissolved. The story of his having been forced to witness the debauchery was invoked by counsel to show that only a madman could have failed to understand what was taking place in his family home.

Historians of insanity in the 19th century have tended to focus on the rise of the asylum, and there has been less work on the relations between families, doctors and patients. Akihito Suzuki explores the domestic side of the social history of madness, seeing it from the viewpoint of contemporary upper-class families. This is not to say that he forsakes the public realm for the private; rather, he examines the ways in which the two spheres interacted: the family’s dealings with doctors, public authorities and the crowd on the street. Commissions of lunacy were sometimes held in taverns or coffee houses, and were often well attended by the public and extensively reported in the press. Around a dozen of them became major news stories and it was not unknown for the Times to devote an entire issue to a case. Though the commission potentially offered a means to reassert control over family property, it also involved washing dirty linen in public, with the attendant risk that the alleged lunatic might find allies and supporters: it was not unknown for the crowd to intervene in an attempt to frustrate the family’s efforts.

This was a time when domestic virtues – the maintenance of patriarchal authority, but also the affection displayed between husband and wife – were the touchstone by which individuals were judged for their fitness to serve in public life, as demonstrated by the widespread popular agitation in support of Queen Caroline. Public morality was being made to depend on private integrity, and so the private sphere was becoming an object of increased interest and scrutiny. Lord Portsmouth’s mental health was in question because he had undermined the patriarchal foundations of sanity, but also because he was a party in a loveless marriage.

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