I am not going to name names, but I can think of a number of people in my life whom I find annoying. They can be royal pains in the butt and sometimes they act just plain nuts. I have sometimes wished I could just make them go away. (This does not apply to anybody reading my blog, of course!)
If I were a respectable man of means in Victorian England, I could make that happen. I would simply have annoying people—especially women, especially if they were related to me—locked up in an insane asylum and then I would not have to deal with them anymore.
This is the premise of Suzanne Rosenthal Shumway’s novel Effie Martin. Shumway has a Ph.D. in Victorian literature, and the focus of her research was women and madness in Victorian England. In Effie Martin, Shumway applies much of the knowledge she gleaned from her research to the portrayal of a young woman who is sent to an insane asylum by her father after a scene in which she lost her composure and acted, well, a bit nutty. Effie is portrayed by Shumway as perhaps a little more sensitive than the normal person and bereaved by the sudden loss of her brother, the only person in the world to whom she was close. She is also a woman who leads such a constricted life that readers can understand her tendency to “chafe at the bit.” Effie Martin is a long way, however, from being “insane” and needing to be locked away from the rest of the world indefinitely, perhaps for life.
Nonetheless, this is what happens to her. After the scene she had with her father, he chose to send her to Warrinder House so she could get some “rest.” While the idea of rest does not sound so bad, Effie soon learns that this “rest” comes at cost of her liberty. She is locked up in a home with several other women and deemed to be a “lunatic.” She has no rights whatsoever; she is completely at the mercy of her “caretakers.”
Effie Martin teaches readers about how “insanity” was addressed in Victorian England, especially when it came to women. We learn that a woman had very little say over her own life. If a man in her family (father, stepfather, husband) wanted her to be sent away, he could do so with very little difficulty. Once the woman was deemed “insane,” her fate was out of her hands. Doctors and guardians are the ones whose opinions were respected and nobody took the word of a “lunatic” seriously. If the doctors were corrupt, like the ones in Effie Martin, the hapless young woman had little hope of getting out alive. The asylum was a business, after all, and for a business to survive, it needed paying customers. Thus, there was little incentive to deem a patient “cured,” and the corrupt doctor could keep his paying customers as long as he saw fit to do so.
In Effie Martin, the way the patients are treated at Warrinder House are enough to turn even the most stable person insane. The system is organized for the benefit of the people running the house, not for the benefit of the patients. Many of the practices are nothing short of torture. For example, the women are often tied to their bedposts at night so they cannot escape. Therefore, they cannot get out of bed at night in order to use the bathroom. Sometimes, then, they end up urinating in bed. This offense is considered a grievous and is punished with what can only be called water torture.
Rather than provide all the details of the horrific practices of Victorian “medicine,” I recommend that you read the book for yourself. Read it and weep.