Dec 17th: Inconvenient People by Sarah Wise

“The phenomenon of false allegations of mental illness is as old as our first interactions as human beings. Every one of us has described some other person as crazy or insane, and most all of us have had periods, moments at least, of madness. But it took the confluence of the law and medical science, mad-doctors, alienists, priests and barristers, to raise the matter to a level of “science,” capable of being used by conniving relatives, “designing families” and scheming neighbors to destroy people who found themselves in the way, people whose removal could provide their survivors with money or property or other less frivolous benefits. Girl Interrupted in only a recent example. And reversing this sort of diagnosis and incarceration became increasingly more difficult, as even the most temperate attempt to leave these “homes” or “hospitals” was deemed “crazy.” Kept in a madhouse, one became a little mad, as Jack Nicholson and Ken Kesey explain in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.

In this sadly terrifying, emotionally moving, and occasionally hilarious book, twelve cases of contested lunacy are offered as examples of the shifting arguments regarding what constituted sanity and insanity. They offer unique insight into the fears of sexuality, inherited madness, greed and fraud, until public feeling shifted and turned against the rising alienists who would challenge liberty and freedom of people who were perhaps simply “difficult,” but were turned into victims of this unscrupulous trade.

This fascinating book is filled with stories almost impossible to believe but wildly engaging, a book one will not soon forget.” (amazon blurb)

Why read Inconvenient People?

inconvenientIf I add the sub-title of this book, it should be instantly clear why I want to read this book: “Lunacy, liberty, and the Mad-Doctors in England. See. Obvious really.

I first came across this book while researching for The Girl Puzzle (new novel due out this Spring!). A large part of The Girl Puzzle takes place in Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum in 1887 and so this book is of great interest to me. Add to that, the two paintings below. I have prints of both of these hanging in my house.

They are both by Richard Dadd, a nineteenth century painter who suffered from mental health difficulties and was possibly schizophrenic. In 1843 he murdered his father and then spent the rest of his life in Bedlam and Broadmoor. Both of these paintings were completed while he was in Bedlam.


The whole field of mental illness and criminality intrigues me, particularly, but not exclusively, as it relates to women’s history – from witches, to hysteria and so on.

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