my experiences in a lunatic asylum, by a sane patient

A man gets put into a private lunatic asylum, he publishes a book about it in 1879 …

The especial experience which I have to tell has nothing especially painful, and is, perhaps, none the worse for that. I have nothing to write of dark rooms or strait-waistcoats or whippings, or to reveal such secrets of the prison-house as will make each particular hair to stand on end by the telling. My lines were cast in pleasant places.

The man was Herman Charles Merivale and fair enough though, he really didn’t want to be there. A gander at his wiki tells us that his doctor sent him to Australia to be treated for depression and that by the time he got back, his lawyer had nicked all his money. That can’t have helped his level of peevishness much. But I digress.

During those months I had the advantage of living in a castellated mansion, in one of the prettiest parts of England, which I shall hate to my dying day, with a constant variety of attendants, who honoured me by sleeping in my room, sometimes as many as three at a time. I was dying in delirium and prostration, simply, and wasted to a shadow; consequently voted ‘violent,’ as the best way out of it.


With carriages to take me out for drives, closed upon wet days, open on fine ; cricket and bowls and archery for the summer, and a pack of harriers to follow across country in the winter ; with the head of the establishment, who lived in a sweet little cottage with his family, to give me five o’clock tea on the Sundays; with five refections a day whereof to partake, with my fellow-lunatics, if so disposed, in my private sitting-room when I could not stand it; with a private chapel for morning prayers or Sunday service, the same companions and attendants for a congregation, and some visitors who would come to look at us; with little evening parties for whist or music amongst ‘ourselves,’ and a casual conjuror or entertainer from town to distract us sometimes for an evening; with an occasional relative to come and see me, beg me not to get excited, and depart as soon as possible,—what more could man desire ? As I look at this last sentence of mine it reads like an advertisement.

It does rather, but no …

Death-in-life did I say ? It is worse ; for it is a life-in-life, worse than any conceivable form of death.


He started off by asking, in essence, what is mad and what is sane anyway?’, but very rapidly decided there was a big difference and that he could spot a true madman immediately. And he was bitterly and thoroughly unimpressed with being in their company.

To his credit, he did call for reform, quoting Hamlet in the process, “O, reform it altogether.”

Good grief this dude whined and whined throughout the book. He made everything about himself, even a guy who’d been locked away for 40 fricken years got zero sympathy and straight down to the usual rusty woe is me I ain’t nevah gettin’ out type speech. It’s not fair, I’m not mad, I’m just an extreme hypochondriac wah wah wahhh yadda yadda … all of it in a dry and verbose meander of a manner. The only reason I didn’t hurl the book violently from me, is that I read it in digital format. (You can too, it’s available all over the place, at a sensible price of no money at all.)

In 1887, journalist Nellie Bly went undercover into an asylum, specifically to discover and report on conditions and then to work for reforms. You can download that free too and you will find it a far better use of your time. Not only did she go to a seriously unpleasant place, she hung on to empathy and humanity. Ten Days in a Madhouse – enjoy the corset ad in the beginning too.

I read some other reviews of Merivale’s book that praised it for its account of conditions and treatments back then, but it’s dense and self-indulgent prose to wade through and besides, there are plenty other books on the subject to download free at the Gutenberg Project, Open Library and so forth.

Comments are closed.