[I have linked several brief excerpts from John Evelyn Barlas, A Critical Biography to my review of that book, so readers can have examples of the author's work. — George P. Landow]

Sanity determinations were based either on the findings of a jury or medical certifications subject to judicial review. Persons committed either voluntarily or involuntarily could be cared for in public or private asylums and, in restricted numbers, in "homes," But to all such institutions, licensing and reporting requirements applied, and official visitations were conducted at specified intervals. Authorities more closely supervised cases in which physical restraint was employed. Government officials who administered the mental health system could not serve if they had a financial conflict of interest. Medical practitioners were required to have basic qualifications. The law delineated procedures for involuntary commitment at least intended to promote objectivity. While legislative protections were not always honored in practice, they at least provided a framework of requirements and prohibitions that encouraged fair and just management of the mentally ill. And, although intention and effect could diverge to the extreme, treatment was intended to be benevolent with an emphasis on cure. [268]

Edith Lanchester (1871-1966) presents a . . . relevant and contemporaneous case. The daughter of an architect, this Socialist and feminist announced her intention to live openly, outside of wedlock, with James Sullivan, a member of the working class and secretary of a local London branch of the SDF. Cohabiting with Sullivan would express her commitment to Socialism, and her related rejection of the institution of marriage. But such behavior crossed rigid lines of class and religion, not to mention conventional morality. Therefore, her father and two of her brothers exploited the English Lunacy Act of 1890 to launch a preemptive strike by having her involuntarily committed to an asylum—aptly called the Priory—on an emergency basis (i.e., not to exceed seven days) based on the statement of a single physician. This temporary commitment was the intended prelude to a long-term involuntary institutionalization. However, spurred by considerable publicity in the press and the intervention of John Burns, Socialist and Member of Parliament for Battersea, two Lunacy Commissioners interviewed her at the asylum on 28 October 1894. The British Medical Journal reported the disposition of the case as follows: "After full inquiry [they] came to the conclusion that in the terms of the Act the patient appeared to be detained without sufficient cause,' and ordered her discharge." Thus after a few days at the Priory, she regained her freedom. [270]

Related material


Cohen, Philip . John Evelyn Barlas, A Critical Biography: Poetry, Anarchism, and Mental Illness in Late-Victorian Britain. Rivendale Press, 2012. [Review]

Created 2009

Last modified 28 March 2019