Bonus Review #2: ‘The Suffering Of Women Who Didn’t Fit: ‘Madness’ in Britain 1450 – 1950′, by David J. Vaughan

The Suffering of Women Who Didn't Fit
Published By: Pen & Sword
Publication Date: 7th November 2018
Format: Hardback
Price: £19.99
I.S.B.N.: 9781526732293


For over 500 years, women have suffered claims of mental decay solely on account of their gender. Frigid, insane, not quite there, a witch in sheep’s clothing, labels that have cast her as the fragile species and destroyer of Man.

This book reveals attitudes, ideas and responses on what was to be done with ‘mad women’ in Britain.

Journey back into the unenlightened Middle Ages to find demonic possession, turbulent humours and the wandering womb. In the Puritan Age, when the mad were called witches and scolds ducked for their nagging. The age of Austen and a sense and sensibility created from her fragile nerves. Then descend into Victorian horrors of wrongful confinement and merciless surgeons, before arriving, just half a century past, to the Viennese couch and an obligation to talk.

At the heart of her suffering lay her gynaecological make-up, driving her mad every month and at every stage of her life. Terms such as menstrual madness, puerperal insanity and ‘Old Maid’s Insanity’ poison history’s pages.

An inescapable truth is now shared: that so much, if not all, was a male creation. Though not every medic was male, nor every male a fiend, misogynist thought shaped our understanding of women, set down expectations and ‘corrected’ the flawed.

The book exposes the agonies of life for the ‘second class’ gender; from misdiagnosis to brutal oppression, seen as in league with the Devil or the volatile wretch. Touching no less than six centuries, it recalls how, for a woman, being labelled as mad was much less a risk, more her inevitable burden.

My Review

Rosie Crofts at Pen & Sword sent this with the last delivery of 2018. Thanks, Rosie, I appreciate it.

I am interested in the history of mental health in Britain, and hoped this would be a good addition to my library. I’m not sure I feel it did, however. I suppose it doesn’t help that I’ve read so many books on the subject.

The central narrative is that women have fared worse in terms of mental health and the care provided and social attitudes because of the misogyny of male ‘experts’. First the priests and then the physicians – from the ancient Greeks and their humours to the ‘alienists’ who prescribed ‘rest cures’ and labial leeches, right up to the psychiatrists, Freud’s obsession with sex, and ‘mother’s little helpers’ in the forms of drugs. It’s a narrative that isn’t unexpected and to be honest it’s pretty obvious if you know anything about history.

Medicine has long been used to control women, especially the sexuality of women, and in conformist societies blaming women’s innate weakness on their constitution – wandering wombs, fragile nerves, cold humours, weak minds – was just another way to control any woman who stepped outside the narrow confines allowed them. The author suggests that these narrow confines could have caused the ‘madness’, and the definitions of ‘madness’ were always been undefined as hysteria or insanity. Some of the descriptions sound like depression, sepsis, psychosis, learning disabilities and Down’s Syndrome.

I struggled to make sense of what the author was saying a lot of the time, I don’t know whether that was the writing style or my disturbed brain. This book is not an easy read or for the general reader. I might have to give it another go at a later date.

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