- Gender and Class in English Asylums, 1890–1914 by Louise Hide
Thirty years ago, Anne Digby and Nancy Tomes published, within months of each other, two landmark studies of lunatic asylums in the Anglo-American world. Their detailed examinations of the Quaker York Retreat and the Pennsylvania Asylum, respectively, marked a turning point in our understanding of the history of the Victorian mental hospital. They examined these controversial institutions from multiple perspectives, analyzing medical treatment, patient populations, asylum attendants, financing, architecture, and the relationship between the asylum and surrounding community. In doing so, they nuanced these often-caricatured institutions, revealing the multidimensionality, ambiguities, and contradictions of asylum life. Those of us who self-identify as experts on the history of the asylum have shelves of subsequent case studies by those who sought to replicate their impressive scholarly achievement.
Louise Hide, in her recent publication on two London County Council asylums—those of Bexley and Claybury—rightly pays tribute to Tomes and Digby in the introduction to Gender and Class in English Asylums, 1890–1914. Hide analyzes these institutions over a quarter of a century, with a particular interest in the social history of the asylum. After a brief survey of the rise of the asylum system in England and Wales, the book explores the roles and responsibilities of asylum medical officers, the life and labor of attendants and nurses, followed by three chapters on various aspects of asylum life, including the evolution of moral treatment, violence, sexuality, and leisure, as well as the attempts to replicate domesticity within these massive institutions. Unsurprisingly, given the title, gender and class loom large in the theoretical approach.
One might suspect that yet another case study of a late Victorian lunatic asylum would be an exercise in what economists refer to as “diminishing marginal utility.” And indeed the chapters on the history of English lunatic asylum system, the survey of patient characteristics, and asylum nurses and attendants, though competently constructed, yield little that is not already captured in other books on the subject. However, this book should not be dismissed as just another asylum case study. Hide reveals unexpected findings in her investigation of the lives of the asylum medical officers, particularly the precarious position of young medical officers who had to spend years in personal and professional (and often geographical) isolation, waiting for a plum position as medical superintendent. This created an unusual social situation, where institutional rules (and social convention) prevented these young men from being married, relegating them to a strange social-sexual limbo. They toiled endless days in what one contemporary vividly referred to as the “deadly dulness [sic]” of asylum life, waiting a good part of their adulthood for the most senior position (p. 55).
Due to the context of the multiple London County Council asylums (rather than simply one county institution), Hide is able to illuminate effectively the occupation mobility (or lack thereof) of the group of asylum medical officers at a formative time in the development of institutional psychiatry. In addition, she [End Page 166] also casts light on the lesser known phenomenon of female medical assistants in turn-of-the-century mental institutions, many of whom, strongly discouraged from moving up the ranks toward a superintendent’s position, moved on to charitable or missionary work overseas. In this way, the book contributes a novel perspective to the social dimensions of a medical institution whose appeal to historians of medicine never seems to diminish.