Paperback review: Inconvenient People, By Sarah Wise

The epic, entertaining drama of madness and its misdiagnosis

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Who would have thought that an epic exploration of the misdiagnosis of madness by Victorian doctors would be so action-packed and entertaining?

After her enthralling explorations of the down-at-heel 19th century in The Italian Boy and The Blackest Streets, Wise has moved on to dark doings among the middle and upper orders. The first of her dozen, immaculately-researched case studies instantly grabs the reader. Despite being tied to his mother’s apron-stings, the eccentric Edward Davies made a fortune in the London tea market. When he finally finds independence, his mother had him incarcerated at the private asylum of Dr George Burrows, a pioneer alienist who claimed that the mad could be detected by their distinctive aroma. In the consequent court case, however, a jury found Davies to be of “perfectly sound mind”. 

In accordance with the popular suspicion of  “mad-doctors”, the verdict was loudly cheered. Many  in the medical fraternity were equally dubious. When  the children of Mrs Catherine Cumming attempted to  have her declared mad largely due to her five cats  (Vic, Viz, Mrs Thomas, Kitty and Tommy), The Lancet concluded, “With the exception of the cats, the malady appears to have afflicted all the living creatures connected with the inquiry.”

Mrs Cumming hit the nail on the head: “If I had been poor they would have left me alone.” Wise probes the toxic combination of avaricious relatives and doctors “still in a state of ignorance” with gusto and wit. The “mad” traits of their targets often have a modern resonance. Louisa Nottidge joined a sect called the Agapemonites that believed in Moonie-style marriages and demanded believers’ cash for an HQ called the Abode of Love.  “Georgie” Weldon was a performer, cross-dresser, energetic litigant and multiple adopter à la Mia Farrow. This marvellous book should be read by anyone intrigued by Victorian society or our wavering definitions of sanity.