A Patient’s Tale of Incarceration in a Victorian Lunatic Asylum


  • Carol Berkencotter University of Minnesota
DOI: https://doi.org/10.6018/ijes/2011/1/137071
Keywords: genre, narratives of personal experience, case history, medical certificates, Ticehurst House Asylum, mental patient, insanity


Using the archival admissions records and the case history of a patient at a British asylum in the 1870s, the author compares two genres. The first of these is two medical certificates written and signed by two physicians attesting that the patient was of unsound mind and needed to be confined and treated. The second genre is the patient’s oral testimony to Parliament’s Select Committee on Lunacy Laws (1877), a narrative he delivered the year following his release from the asylum. Both genres are legal texts; however, it is the patient’s narrative of personal experience, as transcribed in the committee report, that allows the reader a glimpse of the misery imposed by confinement in a “lunatic” asylum. The two medical certificates have considerably more illocutionary force, however; as speech acts they most often resulted in confinement until the patient was determined to have recovered, was transferred to another asylum, or died.


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Author Biography

Carol Berkencotter, University of Minnesota

is a Professor in the Department of Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota. She conducts research on the rhetoric of medicine and psychiatry, and recently (2008) published Patient Tales: Case Histories and the Uses of Narrative in Psychiatry. Professor Berkenkotter's research interests include the history of mental illness and the representations of insanity and the psychiatric patient from the 19th century asylum to the twenty-first century e-patient. She is currently working on a book with Christina Hanganu-Bresch on mood memoirs –published narratives of mania, depression, and manic- depressive illness by patients from 1800 to the present.
How to Cite
Berkencotter, C. (2011). A Patient’s Tale of Incarceration in a Victorian Lunatic Asylum. International Journal of English Studies, 11(1), 1–14. https://doi.org/10.6018/ijes/2011/1/137071