Sarah Wise’s two previous books about the darker regions of Victorian life, The Italian Boy and The Blackest Streets, have been rightly acclaimed for the extensive research they contain and for the clarity and intelligence of the writing. Both books reveal a degree of paranoia in the politer ranks of 19th-century society about the ‘evils’ lurking in their midst; in both Wise lets the facts speak for themselves, not soliciting indignation or drawing any moral applicable to the present day. In her new book, however, the title already indicates where she stands: this is to be an account of how people who were not in fact mad were placed in confinement throughout the 19th century because their relatives thought it better to have them shut away, and because ‘mad doctors’ – as the early psychiatrists were called – colluded with this.
On one level, Inconvenient People succeeds admirably. We are presented with a string of individuals, from the 1820s to the end of the century, who were certainly eccentric, and possibly manic, aggressive, unpredictable or sometimes deluded in a specific area (typically religious belief), but who were arguably still sane enough