The Woman in White

The Woman in White Asylums and Lunacy in the Victorian Era

In the time just before Collins wrote The Woman in White, England was gripped with "lunacy panic." The fear was not that madmen and madwomen were roaming the streets. Rather, people became increasingly afraid that healthy and sane individuals were being wrongly imprisoned in lunatic asylums, where they were stripped of their rights, freedoms, and sometimes their property.

Concerns about regulation and documentation of the conditions under which someone could be admitted to an insane asylum dated back to the 1700s. At this time, there was no regulation of private "madhouses," which were run on a for-profit basis, and there was very little association with medical treatment. In the 1750s and 60s, several cases were brought forward in which an individual raised concerns that a friend or family member was being wrongly detained. Investigations led to their release, and also to increasing calls to reform and restrict the admission process. In 1774, the British Parliament passed the Act for the Regulation of Private Madhouses (the Madhouses Act). The Act required that all residences housing more than one lunatic be subject to licensing and inspection. A patient could also only be accepted into a private asylum if a certificate was obtained from a medical professional testifying to their mental instability.

However, despite this new regulation, concerns about asylums persisted. While private patients (those whose care was being paid for) had to be certified, so called "pauper lunatics" could also be sent to private asylums if their local region decided to cover the costs out of their charitable budget, and these patients did not need documentation by doctors. The certification itself was unreliable; there was nothing to restrict individuals with a conflict of interest (for example, a doctor who was also paid by the asylum) from signing certificates and many individuals, even with dubious credentials, were qualified to sign. Even if someone seemed legitimately to be in need of full-time care, there were persistent reports of abuse and terrible conditions in both public and private asylums. Between 1807 and 1827, four separate government committees met to hear evidence about bad conditions and the possibility that individuals were being wrongfully admitted. In 1828, a new act was passed with stricter admission requirements, requiring a private patient to have two certificates from two different doctors, who could not have any association with an asylum.

However, scandals about wrongful detainment continued. In particular, there were fears that wealthy individuals (who could be either men or women) would be wrongfully detained so that greedy relatives could access their money, or that vindictive husbands would have their wives institutionalized to effectively get rid of them in an era where divorce was still very hard to obtain. The latter concern was publicized by a wide spread scandal in the late 1850s in which the well-known writer, Edward Bulwer Lytton, attempted to declare his wife Rosina insane and have her institutionalized. Because it was well-known that the two had a very volatile marriage and were involved in a bitter custody dispute, it was largely believed that Rosina did not need to be kept in an asylum. The case, along with others in 1858-1859, led to widespread media coverage. Collins drew on this interest to animate the plot of his novel, adding sensational and Gothic elements.