Hysterical Women: Maire Claremont on Why Victorian Females Had It Rough

If you’re a fan of historical romance, haven’t you daydreamed about living in a simpler time, where you could swan about in gorgeous dress, dabble in court intrigue and finally meet a duke of your own?

Well, today Máire Claremont is here to tell us why one period we wouldn't want to live in was the Victorian era. In her second Mad Passions title, an RT Top Pick!, Lady in Red, Máire further delves into the terror that was Victorian insane asylums. Even though we knew it might burst our daydream bubble, we had to know more.

Victorian women had it rough. If given the choice, I would have much rather lived in the Regency or even the Georgian period, where women really did have a lot more social freedom. For instance, if you look at Jane Austen’s letters you can see her transition from having a few drinkies with her pals and getting a little loud at parties to being much more sober and demure in social situations.

Something happened in the Victorian psyche as women were made the bastions of morality and society. We can blame a lot of things. Queen Victoria certainly didn’t help as she projected the image of a perfect family, in which the wife was completely obedient to the husband and domestic bliss equaled the be all and end all for everyone, especially women. A woman who didn’t meet the high standards of the Victorian ideal was an outrage — and perhaps an outrage would have been okay. But it didn’t stop there. People didn’t simply just gossip about the shocking woman who didn’t want to arrange the household and have babies. Victorian women who had the audacity to be unhappy with their limited and highly restricted lot found themselves meeting with the doctors.

My first experiences with Victorian women being treated for having the gall to be discontent in their domesticity really came from fiction. Bertha in Jane Eyre, Agnes Rackham in The Crimson Petal and the White, and two of the women from Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. I was intrigued. It was deliciously horrifying but surely, women couldn’t be locked up for swearing, sleeping around, drinking too much, nerves, anorexia, fear of sex, or just being inconvenient could they? My research began.

The tragic and definitely not delicious answer was yes.

Contemporary engraving of the New York luantic asylum on Blackwell's Island in 1868.

At first, women were sometimes treated with a complete lack of stimulation. All access to books, friends and entertainment was taken away from them to soothe their nerves. These poor women were relegated to staring at walls and out windows, unable to escape. Laudanum and Godfrey’s Cordial, opium and maple syrup, were other tools used to help these women cope with what today we would recognize as discontent, depression or anxiety. Hysteria was the most famous diagnosis for women of the time. Those poor ladies were inflicted with probings from their doctors to ensure that their uterus was in its proper place, rather than wandering around up about their arm pits. Hysteria treatment was actually pretty shocking in the sense that these women were being violated by their own doctors with guess, what … forced orgasms. Doctors were convinced that causing a woman to reach a “paroxysm” would ease her nerves and help her be content. While I’m usually all for orgasms, I don’t want my doctor poking about making me have one for my sanity.

All this inspired me to write about women who were forced into the madhouse with no actual cause. In my book Lady in Red, the heroine Lady Mary sees something she shouldn’t and her father, an all-powerful duke, has her locked away in a private asylum. We might wonder at this today, but it easily occurred then. A family member, almost always a man, only needed two doctors’ signatures to declare a woman insane and have her freedom taken away. She was then institutionalized. Once condemned to the asylum, she almost never left. In such a place, a woman was at the mercy of her keepers. Families would never be aware of the atrocities that passed as treatment, or the abuses that the workers could perpetrate on these women. 

"A Spoonful of Laudanum" photograph by Daniel Hagerman

- Máire Claremont

Ready for more? Máire’s Lady in Red is available online and in stores now! And if you’re ready to return to the more pleasant realm of historical romances, be sure to visit our Everything Romance page.