Yes. I am a history nerd. I will always have historical curiosity as I read my favorite genre of books – historical fiction.
While reading, I ponder:
- How true and accurate is this book?
- Are the characters described here typical __________ of the time? (This was a favorite question of one of my favorite professors in college when we read primary sources written by women from various time periods in American history)
- What influence did historical events play on the work of fiction?
- What kinds of social norms were displayed in this book and how accurate were they to that society?
- …and questions similar to that
This is why I read historical fiction a lot—Because I wonder these very same kinds of things!! And because I wonder about these kinds of things, I’ll add another field “Historical Accuracy” to historical fiction book reviews. I am not trying to turn this blog into one of term papers but I would like to comment on a few of these thoughts. Sometimes I’ll do a little research about the topic and discuss something at length (i.e. a few paragraphs) or sometimes I just might have a few comments.
Finishing “Blue Asylum” got me wondering about women in asylums in the 19th century:
**Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall**
As a result, I did some research about the reasons women were sent to insane asylums in the 19th century.
Why the main character was sent to one:
The main character, Iris Dunleavy, is a plantation wife in Virgina during the American Civil War. She marries her husband without knowing much about him and quickly finds herself alone during the first few years of her marriage to him. During this time, she experiences first hand the horrors of plantation life, a prominent one being slavery. As the Civil War approaches and begins, she finds herself disagreeing strongly with both the institution of slavery and the society around it. Because of this growing resentment, she joins a group of slaves in their tragic attempt at an escape. They’re caught and killed while Iris is sent to the insane asylum for insubordination, basically.
That (as well as many other books I’ve read where this has occurred) got me thinking about the real reasons why women were sent to insane asylums. My husband and I spent some time in Bed Bath and Beyond this weekend and we disagreed slightly on the type of sheets we needed. If this were 150 years earlier and we disagreed on something in the general store, would I have been sent to a “rest home” as characters some times called it?
The answer is probably yes!
I found this very interesting article from the Oshkosh Scholar written by Katherine Pouba and Ashley Tianen, “Lunacy in the 19th Century: Women’s Admission to Asylums in United States of America” where these two authors examined reasons behind female admittance to insane aslyums at the time.
As the writers state, An anonymous writes
“It may be considered a sort of national phenomenon, that the universally received opinion on this subject should declare a women’s only calling to be that of a wife and mother; and failing this, consign her to the hopelessness of a ‘vocation manqué’” (pp. 3-4, 1855).
Blue Asylum alluded to that. I read this book from the local library and returned it before I could get this exact quote (It was somewhere near page 80, if that helps?) but the doctor was talking to Mrs. Dunleavy and stated that the definition of insanity was when a patient went beyond the social norms of the time.
Can you imagine how detrimental that definition would be to our modern society? I’m not saying our mental health field is without its flaws. I’m sure it has plenty. But not only was the definitions of insanity pretty limiting but the reasons for claiming that were pretty rigid as well.
Pouba & Tianen went on to do a test sample of 60 random women committed to the Mendota Mental Asylum during the years of 1860-1900. Reasons for admittance included:
- Suppressed Menstrual Cycles
- “Religious Matters”
- Overwork and Domestic Troubles
Interestingly enough all these symptoms supported their diagnosis of insanity with very little contemplation about alternatives.
- Suppressed Menstrual Cycles – This hits home with me because I live with PCOS, which is an ovarian syndrome whose main symptom is irregular periods. I take birth control for it and luckily that’s as far an impact it has on my life so far. My husband and I understand that it might not be as easy to conceive but luckily I have plenty of girlfriends with that same condition who have had children (one of them was actually a surprise!). Anyway, it’s an odd feeling to know that if I lived 150 years prior and a male in my life wanted to, I could easily get admitted to an asylum. These cases where a patient was admitted because of that were of women 17 years old and 46 years old. As readers know we can easily suggest that perhaps the 17 year old was late in menstruating…perhaps she had PCOS? Anyone reading this might guess (and perhaps accurately?) that the 46 year old was going through menopause?
- Religious matters – This case described a woman who disagreed with her pastor husband over God’s existence. Because society had such strict rules about God’s existence, doctors were not taught to be accepting of differences, which is such a frightening thought! (Poudba & Tianen, 98)
- Overwork and Domestic Troubles – This reason almost makes me laugh because of just how ludicrous the reasoning was! From the cases that Pouba & Tainen investigated these were from women who had between 8-11 children! Having one to three children puts the woman under a lot of stress and especially during that time when women were house managers and every part of child rearing was on their shoulders. But between 8 and 11 children!? I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised if these women would have found time spent in an asylum to almost be at least a little quieter than their home life? (I know very little about their treatments. It could have been excruciating so I won’t say that this was a vacation for them)
Upon reading this article, I can appreciate the accurateness of the Blue Asylum because reasons for admittance to one of these institutions were pretty standard in “dealing” with women at this time, unfortunately.
If you would like to read this interesting article, it can be found here.
- Author(s): Pouba, Katherine; Tianen, Ashley Publisher: University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Citation: Oshkosh Scholar, Volume 1, 2006, Date: May 2006, Permanent link: http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1793/6687