How images of women in Victorian asylum inspired debut novel

Haunting photographic portraits of asylum patients were the spark for writer and journalist Wendy Wallace’s first novel that exposes the horrors experienced by those women who didn’t live up to the standards of Victorian respectability.

The black and white pictures, taken by physician and photographer Dr Hugh Diamond and Hugh Hering, a professional photographer in the 1850s, led Wallace to Bethlem hospital in Beckenham, south London.

Like the photos and the patients’ notes she saw there, The Painted Bridge is a window into a time when “insanity” was a label applied to a whole range of aberrations from acceptable behaviour, be it “overwork” among working-class women, hysteria among the more gentile classes, epilepsy or “puerperal insanity” – what we would call post-natal depression.

“It was fascinating and very moving to see the case notes and match them to the photo­graphs,” says Wallace.

It was a time when photographers like Hering, inspired by the influential physician and amateur photographer Doctor Diamond, were exploring whether the new science of photography could contribute to the under­standing of mental illness through the study of faces and physical demeanour.

“In some ways I find it horrifying – the suggestion that you can accurately read the mind from the face,” says Wallace. “But at the same time it’s not something you can write off categorically. We do read people’s faces and they were exploring it in really good faith.”

It is in this period that Wallace places her story about Anna Palmer, a young woman who is tricked by her husband Vincent into going to Lake House, a private establishment where its owner, Querios Abse, subjects her to increasingly barb­aric treatments.

As she explored the mental health system of the 19th century further, Wallace was able to piece together the social and economic factors that contributed to the suffocating, claustro­phobic nightmare Anna is forced to endure.

With untrained staff – some of whom were former patients – and growing competi­tion from larger institu­tions, there was often more focus on the income that the patients brought in rather than on getting them well enough to leave.

Wallace brilliantly conveys how vulnerable women were, when all their families or spouses needed to have them committed was the signa­tures of two doctors.

With so little personal autonomy and a restric­tive set of assumptions about appropriate behaviour, the prospects for a woman deemed to be suffering from “hysteria” or “dementia” were truly terrifying.

“I see mental health as being on a spectrum and most of us move about somewhere on the middle range, but the way women were perceived then made it very difficult for them,” says Wallace. “They were seen as being at the mercy of their hormones and biology. Middle-class women were particularly vulnerable because they were unable to work and were finan­cially dependent as well as restricted socially.”

Wallace took her inspiration for the institution Anna finds herself in from Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath, its gardens and unique false bridge, which is a powerful metaphor in the story.

Within the confines of Abse’s crumbling ivy-covered mansion, Anna is forced to challenge the subjective-dressed-up-as-rational judgment that she is insane.

It is here too that we find Tabitha Batt, locked away by her family be­cause of “moral insanity” after she chose to live with the man she loved and a whole cast of fascin­ating women who bring to life the figures who are staring into the lens in the photographs of Dr Diamond and Hering.

“The injustice leapt out at me when I did the research but I didn’t want the protagonist to just be a victim,” says Wallace. “She was victimised to some degree by the man she had married, but she had married him after all.”

Naive and prone to dreams and visions, the issue of Anna’s state of mind isn’t as Wallace says “an open and shut case”. It’s the way that Anna, a fascinating heroine, confronts not only those around her but her own failure to accept reality that makes The Painted Bridge such a powerful book.

This article first appeared in the Camden New Journal