19th century asylums: a reading list

Last year I developed an interest in the stories of women committed to insane asylums. Why is this intriguing? For starters, it is important to understand the history of women’s rights in general, and of women’s power to determine their own identity and role in society in particular. The 19th century insane asylum is a hotbed of power issues and a fascinating–yet disturbing–setting for a story. You’ll see this as a common thread in these stories as women attempt to fight back against their prescribed roles.

asylumpatient

from “The Insane in Foreign Countries” by William Pryor Letchworth, 1889. “To prevent the body strap from slipping down, a loose circular band of leather extends from the front edge over the head and lodges broadly on the shoulders, which is also secured behind by a loop-hole and small strap attached to one of the rings through which the pin is directed. By this method the whole is preserved from being shifted, and it most completely prevents the use of either hand for any injurious purpose. “

 

The novels on this list each create a world in which the writer can ask big questions. I’ve got a quotation from Barbara Kingsolver tucked away in my commonplace book that speaks to this:

I devise a very big question whose answer I believe will be amazing, and maybe shift the world a little bit on its axis. Then I figure out how to create a world in which that question can be asked and answered.

~ Barbara Kingsolver, on her writing process

Without further ado, here’s my list:

 

  1. Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman. I haven’t read this yet; I’ve only just come across its existence after reading Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley. Mary Wollstonecraft blazed a path into feminist territory, introducing the concept of egalitarian relationships between men and women. I am a huge Mary Shelley fan (I believe she is the Kevin Bacon of the literary world) and have only just dipped into her mother’s work.
  2. Sarah Waters, Fingersmith. Set in the late 19th century London slums, this novel twists and turns through a broad range of emotional, physical, and ethical territory. Definitely a provocative page turner.
  3. Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White. I haven’t read this, but just saw that it likely inspired Fingersmith, so I’m including it. It was first published in 1860 and is a classic mashup of Victorian Gothic and Realism.
  4. Kathy Hepinstall, Blue Asylum. This one is from the Civil War period and sets the protagonist, Iris Dunleavy, in a state of powerlessness rooted in isolation, both political and geographic. The muggy swampy Florida landscape will draw you into the slow hot world of Iris’ story.
  5. Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace. This was the story that got me started down this topic path. Set in 1843 Canada, this is based on real events.
  6. Marcia Hamilcar, Legally Dead: Experiences During Seventeen Weeks Detention in a Private Asylum. This appears to be a work of nonfiction, and it’s interesting to see that the preface was written by a doctor who offers disclaimers and defense of contemporary practices.
  7. Nellie Bly, Ten Days in a Mad-House. This one is also nonfiction, the work of journalist Nellie Bly who in 1887 pretended to be insane in order to report on the conditions inside Blackwell’s Island Asylum.
  8. Megan Chance, An Inconvenient Wife. Chance’s narrative gets to the heart of female identity and power in ways that modern readers will relate to. Lucy is an upper-class woman in the 1880s who longs for sex and art, both completely taboo desires for a woman in her position.

Goodness knows there are many more titles out there, and you can easily find longer, better descriptions that what I’ve written here. I’ve linked to Goodreads for most of these, so that’s a great place to start. Listopia has a list called Victorian Asylums, so check that out too. I’m planning to work my way through that list over the course of the year, but I’m terrible at recording what I read on Goodreads. If you are there, let’s connect.

Happy reading!


 

Here’s a bonus nugget of Quaker history from Max Carter regarding this drawing below:

The Quakers, following in the footsteps of the English Friends who established the world’s first mental hospital, the Retreat in York, in the 1790s, purposefully described it as a hospital and pioneered in using botanical therapy. The azalea gardens are still a major attraction and opened to the public each spring

GreenMeadows

Philadelphia, 1817. Established by the Society of Friends “for the care of such of their members as may be deprived of their reason.” Image from page 136 of “The institutional care of the insane in the United States and Canada” (1916)

Local Quaker lands and stories

I’ve recently joined a walking group that meets on Wednesdays. We crossed paths on a September morning on the Palmetto Trail and struck up a conversation that led us to discover common friends and a shared interest in nature. Each week this group explores a different place, and one Wednesday in October we explored the New Garden Friends Meeting Cemetery and the woods over at Guilford College. Max Carter, whose mind is an encyclopedia of Quaker history, led the way. He wore his trademark sandals despite the weather, and we spent two fascinating hours under the wide open Quaker-gray sky that dripped rain off and on.

The familiar way he hopped around the cemetery from grave to grave showed his deep connection to the people whose lives played out on the same soil we walked on. We heard stories about Quaker families from Nantucket (such as the Starbuck family) and from other parts of North Carolina, families that moved south from Philadelphia then back north to Indiana to distance themselves from slavery. Non-Quakers, soldiers from both sides of major wars, mass graves, the Revolutionary oak tree, the cornerstones from the tiny schoolhouse—this cemetery offers a wide-angle lens on the long history of social justice advocated by Quakers.

Just across the street from New Garden Friends Meeting is Guilford College, once known as the New Garden Boarding School. The area was settled in the 17th century by Quakers who, according to Max, took care not to settle on land already being used by native people. The 300+ acres of old-growth forest have been a refuge for centuries, home to a variety of plants and animals that are mostly undisturbed. In centuries past, the woods were a safe haven for black people escaping slavery. Local women hung baskets of food from trees for them, and the Underground Railroad led them north to freedom.

Follow the paths through the woods and you’ll find yourself at what locals call the Underground Railroad tree, a tulip poplar with a five-foot girth, estimated to be hundreds of years old. (Here are directions to find the tree yourself.) This is the place where we ended our tour, soaked from the rain, drenched in local history, standing in awe at the power and persistence of this old tree and surrounding forest.

UGRRtree

We followed Max out of the forest and packed into our car. On the way back up to the main section of campus, I caught a glimpse of a white animal off to the side of the road, just in the woods.

My first thought was that its ears were from a deer, but the white, it was maybe a goat? “I just saw something odd …”

“What’d you see?”

“I don’t know. Maybe a goat? I don’t know, it was white, I wonder if it was a deer?”

We backed up the car and looked: a young albino deer was grazing the hill to the side of the road. Flanked by siblings, it was shy but not scared. We must have watched that white deer for nearly five minutes, as it worked its way deeper into the woods. In many cultures, white deer are considered sacred, as harbingers of change and messengers from the divine. So, it felt entirely appropriate that we’d experience this magical ending to our morning, to feel steeped in the refuge offered by Quaker grounds.

albinodeer_MaryLuckhaus.jpg

photo credit: Mary Luckhaus

Follow the topic trail

Two months into grad school to study writing and editing I discovered commonplace books and fell in love. I started out

701prospectustitle

Throwback Thursday

looking into the ways they feed creative output and moved into the history of the genre and the ways the genre split and fed other social forms. I discovered a group of Quaker women in colonial Philadelphia who got together for teatime and commonplacing. Thoreau and Emerson got involved when I read their shared commonplace book. The subject snowballed into material book culture, reading habits, and brain science.

It was my first semester back in school, and I initially chose this topic because I wanted an overlapping topic to use for my two seminar papers. In one class I studied the Quaker women and their writing, and in the other I studied the genre in a more holistic manner.

For the two years that followed, I pulled more and more into this topic, and towards the end of my program I wrote a nonfiction book proposal. Today I’ve started pulling out files and putting some thoughts together.

Fun fact: Women in colonial Philadelphia (as well as in other places) raised silkworms to support the colonies in their fight for independence. By producing silk and other fabrics, they reduced the need to buy from England. Only tangentially related to commonplace books, but still interesting I think.

July 1749, from a magazine titled

July 1749, from a magazine titled “Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure”

In fact, the trail of topics is precisely what makes a commonplace book interesting, entertaining, and useful. Who out there keeps a commonplace book? Who wants to start one?