Women’s history and asylum literature

by Anne Goodwin

There’s a lively literature on life in the Victorian asylums which warehoused society’s misfits from the beginning of the nineteenth century. From my reading of this literature, combined with what I learnt as a clinical psychologist in a long-stay psychiatric hospital, I explore the facts behind the fiction, and ask whether women were more disadvantaged than the men.

St Nicholas hospital, Newcastle upon Tyne
(image: ©Anne Goodwin)

Wayward wives

There was no clear definition of mental illness in 1845, when the Asylums Act made asylum provision for ‘pauper lunatics’ compulsory in all English counties. Hospital records indicate that people of either sex might be admitted for seemingly arbitrary reasons but, by definition, only women could be shut away for ‘suppression of the menstrual cycle’ or ‘unkindness of husband’.

Had she entered a formal asylum, the most famous ‘madwoman’ in literature might have acquired the latter ‘diagnosis’. But Edward Rochester’s inconvenient wife, in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is sequestered in the attic of her husband’s home. Although Bertha’s situation is appalling, it’s no worse, and potentially better, than that of the inmates of private asylums at the time. 

The title page to the original publication of Jane Eyre, including Brontë’s pseudonym “Currer Bell” (image: WikiCommons)

But contemporary readers would hope for better conditions for troubled women. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys provides some context by showing the meaning behind Bertha’s supposed madness. She is undoubtedly disturbed, but also angry and bewildered, in an unfamiliar country with nothing to reflect her true self back to her.

Difficult daughters 

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the eugenics movement paved the way for the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, which enabled people considered morally defective to be forcibly segregated from the rest of society. Until the Act was repealed in 1959, women who conceived a child ‘out of wedlock’ could be confined in a mental institution. With ample anecdotal evidence of women’s lives being ruined this way, their tragedy makes poignant fiction. Some novelists include an extra layer of stigma, as in Sebastian Barry’s The Secret ScriptureThe Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell; and The Girl Behind the Gates by Brenda Davies, which is based on real-life events. My own novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, tells the story of a woman shut away for fifty years after giving birth to an ‘illegitimate’ child in 1939.

Gender-determined activities 

The original asylums were constructed as self-contained communities, with laundries, bakeries and farms. These survived on the inmates’ unpaid labour, with a gender bias in the allocation of tasks. Although all were exploited, at least men might have the luxury of working outdoors. Nora, in The Girl Behind the Gates, does not get to feel the sun on her face for years.

Female nurses

Gender roles among the staff in fictional asylums typically reflect those in society as a whole. Thus, up until the mid-twentieth century, we don’t encounter female characters as doctors or hospital superintendents. Nevertheless, as nurses in close contact with the patients, female staff wield tremendous power, not necessarily benign. Who could forget the sadistic Nurse Ratched in Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Although this novel offers only stereotyped roles for female characters – as battle-axes, double-binding mothers and ‘whores’ – Nurse Ratched, with her large breasts shielded by her starched uniform, symbolises the perversion of caring that characterises the asylum system.

My novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, is set around three decades later, in a less repressive regime. However, I put an old-school ward sister in charge of thirty elderly women. Sister Henderson ignores the patients who troop to her office, until she prompts Matty Osborne to perform her ‘delusions’ and, like a child with her party piece, to recite a comic verse.


While the word asylum means retreat or refuge, we tend to associate it with bizarre and brutal treatments. Sadly, given the history of psychiatry, this has some basis in fact. 

The most gruesome, perhaps, is lobotomy, an irreversible procedure in which an instrument is inserted into the brain, claimed to be as straightforward as dentistry in its heyday around the 1950s. The rise and fall of this practice is depicted in Samantha Greene Woodruff’s recent novel, The Lobotomist’s Wife. There is some evidence that women were particularly targeted for this damaging intervention.

Yet, around the same time, other patients were offered the talking cure. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is based on author Joanne Greenberg’s hospitalisation from the age of sixteen. The main character, Deborah, is rescued from insanity by the patience and perseverance of her female psychotherapist. Dr Fried is based on Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, who promulgated the (still controversial) view that psychotic illness could be understood as an adaptation to adverse experience.

Domestic skills and deinstitutionalisation

The impetus for closure gathered pace around the 1960s, although, in Britain, it took another four decades for the Victorian asylums to become extinct. The rehabilitation teams established to prepare patients for community care took a gender-neutral approach, training men as well as women in domestic skills. My novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, inspired my own experience of working in rehabilitation services, focuses on the impact of this major change in social policy on patients, staff and the wider community.

About the author

Anne Goodwin enjoyed studying social history at school but gave it up when her exam results didn’t match her enthusiasm. Now that objects she recognises from childhood have become museum artefacts, she’s revived that interest through fiction. A former clinical psychologist, Anne is the author of three novels and a short story collection published by small independent press, Inspired Quill.  After reading and reviewing numerous novels set in long-stay psychiatric hospitals, none of which accurately portrayed the process of closure, she embarked on her latest novel Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home

One thought on “Women’s history and asylum literature

  1. So I suffered from depression I guess they would have put me in one of those. Back in those days. I am happy times has changed some, I guess. Some people still treat me like I am crazy.


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