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Inconvenient People: lunacy, liberty and the mad-doctors in Victorian England, By Sarah Wise

A harrowing visit to the secure premises of 'The Retreat'

This account of madness misconceived and mishandled begins with a riot and ends with a terrible absence of complaint.

In 1829, a London crowd intervened to save Edward Davies, a brilliant but eccentric merchant, from enforced removal to a free-enterprise madhouse at the instance of his nightmare mother. Like other relatives calling in a mad-doctor doubling as asylum keeper, Mrs Bywater wanted Edward's money. She had invested in the medical opinion of George Man Burrows.

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This particular alienist - the contemporary term Sarah Wise uses - thought madness detectable by a smell (Deadly Nightshade!), and best dealt with by incarceration. For this he had secure premises, The Retreat, and brutal, insulting attendants. Notoriously, committal papers and evidence were skipped and the prospective patient seized by a private coup. To "Burrows" somebody was to accelerate a package-deal of ready certification and restraint with a snatch. The misery involved for a sensitive person like Edward Davies, weeping before bouncers, is not to be measured.

In 1829, the good heart of the crowd would be reinforced by the Tory press. The Political Quarterly, ardently against parliamentary reform, was also dead against Dr Burrows. Detestation of a citizen bundled away on the say-so of interested parties was a force in steady opposition to predatory kin. With the example of Brislington House, founded 1806, where Dr Fox kept a ring of patients behind the grilles of wall-niches, like saints martyred again, it was furiously needed. Fox, typically for the trade, believed that the commonest cause of madness was masturbation.

The problem of public distrust was its enforcement. A Lunacy Commission was created, but its overpaid directors lacked energy and direction. The Gilbertian chorus of proprietors, relatives and retained signers of papers is handled here by way of 12 case-histories, horrific, bizarre and funny. Take Henry Prince.

Surrounded by vulnerable souls, to whom he had promised immortal life, Prince from the 1840s ran the palatial "Abode of Love" with all the resources that surrendered inheritances could bring in. The Nottige family, with four alienated daughters, was appalled that Prince could now finance "Heaven". Better yet, he could afford a future Lord Chief Justice to establish the technical legality of his racket.

Two cases are more cheerful. Rosina Bulwer-Lytton's arrogant, stingy, best-selling husband Edward tried to put her away. As Conservative candidate, the novelist was trapped on his own hustings while Rosina made the speech, delighting citizens with his iniquities. Georgina Weldon, a supercharged personality, went vividly public against her idle, unfaithful husband.

After these cheerful late cases comes a devastating epilogue. The cult of eugenics in the early 20th century was exemplified by Winston Churchill in fascist mode warning of the "unnatural growth of the feeble-minded classes".

The Mental Deficiency Act 1913 followed, regressing from late-Victorian scepticism to give doctors finger-clicking authority. By 1947, "Industrial scale wrong-headedness toward the mentally ill" had confined 54,000 human beings. The warm heart of the crowd rescuing Edward Davies would return in the excitable Sixties with that unscientific thing, compassion. Even so, you put this quite superlative book down, shaken.