When and how did you first learn of this extraordinary policy of committing perfectly sane people to asylums?
I suppose I had a sense that in the Victorian and Edwardian period women in particular could be committed to asylums for any number of supposed illnesses – there’s a shocking document from the time that lists ‘excessive novel reading’ as one of the reasons for admittance, (I know I’d have been committed myself if that was the only criteria!) Reading the asylum casebooks, however, gave me a more balanced picture; there were many women for instance who were suffering from exhaustion or what sounded very like postnatal depression, who must have been working all hours in the mills since they were children, and who now had many children of their own. These women often simply needed a place to rest. Following their stories in the casebooks I was really surprised and happy to read how many of them improved steadily over time with decent food, rest and time away from work and family. So the asylum began to seem a more nuanced, complex environment, not just this bleak, monolithic place, from which no one ever emerged.
It happened to your great-great grandfather, didn’t it?
Yes, although in his case he does seem to have been truly ill. He was an Irishman who had come to England in search of work and a better life, and he was transferred to the asylum from the workhouse in 1909. He was described on his admission notes as ‘melancholic,’ and was emaciated and undernourished. He seems to have been made ill from poverty and lack of work. He never recovered his mental or bodily health, and died at the asylum in 1918.
When did you think: ‘There’s a novel in this!’
It was seeing a picture of the asylum’s ballroom that gave me that first tingling feeling. It happened by chance; I was researching my father’s family history, looking at the census of 1911. On the form it stated in a small, partially crossed out note that my great-great-grandfather was a patient at Menston Asylum, known then as West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum. I had never heard of the place, so did an online search and immediately came across an archive which showed pictures of the building. In many ways it appeared as I would have imagined it; although architecturally magnificent it was brooding and bleak, but when I saw the pictures of the ballroom at its heart I was astonished. Images and questions immediately started crowding in; who had decided to build it? What was their attitude to the patients inside? Which of the patients were allowed to dance there?
When I learned that the male and female patients, who were segregated during the week, came together every Friday to dance together I knew I had to write about it.
What extra research did you have to do? Some of it must have been harrowing, to say the least.
I spent a lot of time in the asylum’s archives reading the casebooks. They were so evocative; these big old books with marbled covers, smelling of age and institutions; I felt immensely privileged to read them. Each patient had a photograph taken on admission and these were fascinating, often troubling documents. The words the patients spoke were recorded verbatim too, as evidence of their madness, and this meant I could really hear their voices, speaking across time, erupting into the present. I found it very moving.
I also read extensively in the Eugenics Review, which is held at the Wellcome Collection in London. This was much more shocking in its way than the casebooks were. It was here I read of Churchill’s enthusiasm for Eugenics, and saw just how many of the great and the good were also convinced of its benefits. Some of the arguments put forward in the articles were horrifying in their racism, sexism and attitudes to the poor who were often seen as ‘degenerate’; genetically incapable of being anything else.