Guest Blog: Five Nineteenth-Century Inmates of Insane Asylums

By Suzanne Shumway

1. Mary Lamb (1764-1847), sister of the essayist, poet, and playwright Charles Lamb. In 1796, Charles checked himself into a private asylum and spent six weeks there, never dreaming that a few months later, his sister would fall victim to a madness so severe that she would kill her own mother in a fit of rage. Although Mary was confined to Fisher House Asylum immediately after the murder, a verdict of lunacy assured that Lamb escaped punishment, and she was eventually released into Charles’s custody. However, she occasionally returned to an asylum when she felt madness coming on.

2. Rosina Bulwer Lytton (1802-1882) was the wife of the immensely popular novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Theirs was a love match, but the relationship hit the skids within eight years of their marriage. When her husband took up with other women, Rosina protested, and the result was a legal separation. The money settled on Rosina was scanty, however, and Bulwer-Lytton refused to come up with more, despite the fact that he was rolling in cash by this point in his career. Rosina took umbrage and found several ways to show her displeasure: the worst was when she appeared in public to denounce Bulwer-Lytton to his constituency when his appointment as Colonial Secretary under Lord Derby was put to the vote. Her outburst spurred Bulwer-Lytton to have her locked up in an insane asylum.  Public outcry was so voluble, however, that she was released after three weeks in Dr. Gardiner Hill’s establishment for lunatics.  Her grand-daughter was the early 20th-century suffragette and social reformer Constance Lytton.

3. John Thomas Perceval (1803-1876) was a founder and secretary of the Alleged Lunatics Friends Society, which lobbied for more humane treatment of the insane, and the son of the only prime minister of England to be assassinated (Spencer Perceval). Perceval may have witnessed his father’s murder in the House of Commons on May 11, 1812; in 1830, after a spell in the army, he succumbed to a religious mania and spent three years in two different private insane asylums, emerging in 1834. His account of his experiences in Brislington and Ticehurst Asylums make for harrowing reading. In 1962, anthropologist Gregory Bateson edited and published them as Perceval’s Narrative: a Patient’s Account of his Psychosis.

4. Isabella Thackeray (1816-1893), wife of novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, suffered from severe post-natal depression after the birth of their third child. Hoping that a visit to her mother would help her recover, Thackeray took Daddher to Ireland, but she jumped from the window of a water-closet while at sea. She was saved from drowning, but she never recovered her sanity, despite Thackeray’s attempts to find a cure, and she ended her days some fifty years later, long after her husband’s death, as a resident in a private asylum at Chaillot, near Paris.

5. Richard Dadd (1817-1886), an artist of great promise, went to the Middle East with Sir Thomas Phillips, making sketches and pictures for Phillips to document his journey. Upon his return to England, however, his behavior grew increasingly eccentric, and, when his father met with him to urge him to submit to care, Dadd stabbed him to death. Escaping in his bloodstained clothes, he made it all the way to France. After attempting to kill a fellow carriage passenger, however, he was extradited to England, where he was sent to Bethlem Hospital. Although he never recovered, he was allowed to continue painting as therapy.

Dr Suzanne Shumway is Professor of English and Speech at North Central Michigan College. She has a forthcoming chapter on Perceval’s Narrative in a book called Symptoms of Disorder: Reading Madness in British Literature 1744-1845 (Cambria Press), and she has written on various scholarly topics over the years since getting her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. Suzanne also writes about literature at her blog, The Tabard Inn.

Image: Portrait of British painter Richard Dadd (1817-1886) painting Contradiction: Oberon and Titania. Photograph by Henry Hering (ca. 1856), public domain.