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Women and Madness

Hilary Marland

Poor Mad Margery Alexander Morison, The Physiognomy of Mental Diseases

Portrait of Mad Margery, a young woman driven mad and living in the fields, possibly taken from a popular song ‘Poor Mad Margery’ c.1790-1800. By James John Hill c.1830-70.

Alexander Morison, The Physiognomy of Mental Diseases (London: G. Odell, 1838), Plate VIII. The image was one of a series depicting puerperal insanity or insanity of childbirth; note the restraints and gloves, which may have been put on the patient to avoid self-harm or to prevent masturbation.


Women have been depicted as particularly vulnerable to confinement in asylums. Yet in the eighteenth century male admissions to private asylums tended to outstrip those of women, and, according to Roy Porter, ‘Georgian asylum admissions lend no support to the view that male chauvinist values were disproportionately penalizing women with mental disorders’. None the less, many medical treatises, as well as novels and plays of the eighteenth century, depicted how social expectations inflamed or frustrated the fairer sex, and led to mental breakdown – unrequited love, inappropriate romances, the difficulties of matrimony or failure to marry at all, inability to conceive, or the sadness of being left a widow. Women were described, in the words of playwright Henry Fielding, as especially sensitive and subject to extremes of feeling and expression.

These Fatigues, added to the Uneasiness of her Mind, overpowered her weak Spirits, and threw her into one of the worst Disorders that can possibly attend a Woman: A Disorder very common among the Ladies…Some call it Fever on the Spirits , some a nervous Fever, some the Vapours, and some the hysterics. (Henry Fielding, Amelia, 1st edn London,1752, book 3, ch. 7.)

Women were also admitted to private asylums on slender evidence, notably those who contravened expectations concerning their modesty, conduct, duties or behaviour or those who would not bend to their husbands’ will, even when husbands were themselves making extraordinary demands that could be deemed crazy. The case of Hannah Mackenzie illuminates how mad-doctors, could become tools of husbands keen to control their ‘difficult’ wives. Peter Mackenzie sought to confine his wife after he attempted to make Hannah’s niece, with whom he was having an adulterous affair, mistress of the household. Hannah fled when Dr Battie, a prominent mad-doctor, was brought to the house, but was tricked into returning and locked in her bedchamber, supervised by a female keeper and restrained in a straitjacket. Thereafter she was conveyed to Peter Day’s Paddington madhouse. By attracting the attention of a boy working in the garden of the house next door, Hannah escaped after throwing down money and then her shoe – which she hoped, Cinderella-like, would identify her. Her friends were informed of her whereabouts and she was rescued from the asylum, with the help of John Sherratt, a lawyer and well-known campaigner against private madhouses.

By the nineteenth century increasingly large numbers of women were being confined in public and private asylums, thus reversing the previous situation as female admission in some institutions overtook those of men. Not only subject to cultural and social pressures, women were deemed likely to fall prey to disorders of the mind related to their biological vulnerability and the female life cycle, marked by their susceptibility to a range of psychiatric conditions from adolescence and the establishment of menstruation, through childbearing, aging and finally menopause. Many admissions to Ticehurst were sent there after being diagnosed with gynaecological disorders, as well as conditions tied to their stubborn refusal to conform. Hysteria, ‘the daughters’ disease’, was depicted as a condition which particularly afflicted young well-to-do women, who would throw their households and family life into confusion with their irrational behaviour and attention seeking displays.

The rise of interest in disorders associated with childbirth provide a rich example of the ways in which what had been perceived as occasional mental disturbances and displays of violence triggered by the trials of birth shifted gear. In the nineteenth century it was anticipated that large numbers of women were likely to fall prey to mental disorders resulting from the challenges of childbirth and maternity. The condition ‘puerperal insanity’ was labelled and defined in 1820 and thereafter male obstetric practitioners and psychiatrists took great interest in mental disorders linked to pregnancy and childbirth. By mid-century these conditions accounted for 10 per cent of female admissions in many asylums. Amongst such cases brought to Ticehurst Asylum, Eliza Gipps was admitted in 1860 at the age of 40 after a difficult confinement with her first child, suffering from terrible delusions. She remained distressed about her separation from her son, talking about him and her desire to return home, and on New Year’s Eve in 1867 refused to go to bed ‘under the impression that her carriage was coming to take her home to her “child”. She never saw him again after being brought to Ticehurst and died two years later in the asylum. Her story starkly reveals to us the heartbreak of many women separated from home and family in such institutions. Not all cases ended so sadly, however, and many other women were released cured after several months of treatment. Elizabeth Robertson, confined in the Royal Edinburgh Asylum in 1851, was on admission noted to be hopelessly violent, immense trouble to the attendants and other patients, ‘pugnacious, destructive and mischievous, of ‘superhuman strength’, like a ‘wild beast’ but eight months later became tranquil, industrious, clean and tidy, sociable and contented, and, symbolically, was discharged on Christmas Eve back to her family, ‘remarkable for her kindness of disposition’.

Further Reading:

Elizabeth Foyster, ‘At the Limits of Liberty: Married Women and Confinement in Eighteenth-Century England’, Continuity and Change, 17 (2002), pp.39-62.

Hilary Marland, Dangerous Motherhood: Insanity and Childbirth in Victorian Britain (Houndmills: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004).

Roy Porter, Mind-Forg’d Manacles: A History of Madness in England from the Restoration to the Regency (London: Athlone, 1987; Penguin edn, 1990).

Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (London: Virago, 1987).