Volume 12 of The Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathology (1858), edited by L. Forbes Winslow, contains an article entitled “Sussex Lunatic Asylum.” A subtitle offers a more specific outline of the article’s contents: “how the inmates will be lodged, fed, clothed, employed, and amused” (p. 463). The accommodations and activities presented in the article strongly contrast the living situation of Bertha Mason, Rochester’s violent, mentally insane wife from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). In about a decade, Victorian society made huge gains in terms of how it viewed and treated people with mental orders. Aware of this change, Winslow boasts of the civility and forward-thinking with which the asylum is operated and overseen.
Winslow precedes his discussion of the Brighton town asylum by juxtaposing it with a contrasting view of “lunatic accommodation in the olden times:
Such and such strength of dungeon, so much length of chain, such and such allowance of straw, of bread and of water; and there was an end of it. If the poor wretch raged, they tortured him;if he pined, he might if it pleased him, pine to death. The asylum was like that place of horror over the door of which the Italian poet wrote that those who entered were to abandon even Hope. [p. 463]
In the “olden times,” treatment of people with mental disabilities appealed to anger and ignorance. While Winslow may exaggerate the conditions and treatment of old, as suggested by his ornate language and reference to Dante and by his agenda in the article to promote the new asylum, some truth likely lies in his words. His description, though more extreme than Rochester’s treatment of Bertha, generally compares accurately with it. When Mr. Briggs and Mr. Mason reveal that Rochester already has a wife, the reader gets a glimpse of the life Bertha lives: “He lifted the hangings from the wall, uncovering the second door; this, too, he opened. In a room without a window, there burnt a fire, guarded by a high and strong fender, and a lamp suspended from the ceiling by a chain” (p. 380). Rochester shuts Bertha up in a claustrophobic room in his house with no windows and nothing but a bed, a lamp, and a guarded fireplace. He applies the practice of “out of sight, out of mind,” leaving Bertha in the hands of Grace Poole when not simply locking her up. When the wedding guests to Rochester and Jane’s ruined wedding arrive in Bertha’s chamber, Bertha attempts to attack Rochester. His handing of the situation also lines up with Winslow’s description: “At last he mastered her arms; Grace Poole gave him a cord, and he pinioned them behind her: with more rope, which was as hand, he bound her to a chair” (p. 381). When Bertha struggles and lashes out against Rochester, her captor, he responds by restraining her, although not with “so much length of chain” as Winslow mentions. Still, the stories align, giving the reader an idea of the terrible treatment of the mentally ill before the mid-1800s and preparing him/her for the enlightened ways of the Brighton asylum.
Winslow structures his visit to the asylum around the order in which he saw each room during his tour. He first describes a day-room for the patients:
Here they will sit and read, or saw, and will take their meals—for no dining-hall has been provided, it being found better that the patients should dine in their own wards—not in solitude, but in families of greater or less magnitude, according to the stage, condition, or peculiarities of the malady of each.[p. 463]
Already we see that attempts are made to accommodate the patients and allow them to have social and active lives. Winslow continues: “These rooms are all roomy and cheerful, and all command a wide country view, not through gratings or loopholes, but from glazed windows, constructed so that the safety of the inmate is secured without the idea of confinement being conveyed” (p. 463).
Essentially, the asylum attempts to treat its patients like normal people and to help them lead normal lives. Unlike the room in which Rochester confines Bertha, the rooms of the asylum Winslow describes has many windows with a country view, but without gratings that give the impression of a prison. A direct comparison between Rochester and the asylum’s treatments of their ’patients’ arises over the subject of fire. While “a high and strong fender” guards the fireplace in Bertha’s chamber, Winslow is shocked and impressed to learn that the building’s heating consisted of “open grates, and chests of coals beside them ready for use.” The superintendent, Mr. Mortlock, replies upon questioningthat this system is “considered perfectly safe and is both more healthful and more cheerful than any system of heating by means of pipes” (p. 464). The trust that Mr. Mortlock places in the patients shows a significant change from the “olden times” depicted in Jane Eyre.
Winslow says that the wards so far inspected “will be occupied by those properly designated ’patients;’ but a large number will come under the category of ’convalescents,’ and . . . are quite capable of following the occupations to which they have been accustomed, or other which they may be taught” (p. 464). Charles Dickens's Great Expectations and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre handle the maturation of male and female characters differently, reflecting the differences in conceptions and attitudes of Victorian society towards men and women. These differences also surface in the division of responsibilities between male and female ’convalescents’ in the Sussex Asylum. Women that fall under this category engage mostly in doing laundry, for which the asylum installed a “wringing machine...by which some of the hardest work in connection with the washing is saved” (p. 464). Winslow claims the women have “every necessary for carrying on this branch of domestic economy in the most expeditious and satisfactory manner” (p. 464). The reader gets a glimpse of contemporary society by simultaneously seeing a conceived female responsibility and the influence of the Industrial Revolution in the form of increased productivity. At the opposite end of the building, in the east wing, “in the place of laundry, you find provisions made for pursuits adapted to the male convalescent patients” (p. 464), showing both Winslow and the asylum’s attitudes concerning appropriate gender roles. These provisions include “the tailors’ shop, the shoemakers’ shop, the upholsterers’ shop, the carpenters’ shop, a bakehouse with its oven, a brewhouse, stables, and so forth” (p. 464). The asylum places a much wider range of responsibilities on the male “convalescents,” in accord with the contemporary notion that pure, frail women belong indoors with few and light tasks.
Thus, the necessities of the asylum are carried out by the patients, “who but a few years since were deemed incapable of anything but violence and destruction!” (p. 464). Winslow recognizes the extent to which contemporary conceptions of the mentally ill have changed. This progress likely marks the beginnings of efforts, which continue through today, to house and treat those with mental disorders humanely.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Richard Nemesvari. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press, 2004.
Winslow, Forbes, ed. “Sussex Asylum.” The Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathology. Vol. 12. London: Churchill, 1859.
Last modified 28 January 2009