The York Lunatic Asylum was founded in 1777 and typified this approach to the disabled. Fortunate patients from wealthy families were relatively well-treated while poor patients suffered through straightjackets, restraining chains, inadequate food, and little supervision or protection. But all patients, even wealthy ones, were subject to such “treatments” as purges and cold baths. Deaths among the poor patients were common but they were not reported. Since the asylum was private there were no government inspections, and so there was no way to evaluate how well “treatment” was working, or if there was any attempt at treatment at all.
In 1792 a young Quaker woman suffering from what we would now call chronic depression was admitted to the York Lunatic Asylum. Six weeks later, she was dead. Her fellow Quakers investigated her death, and when they discovered the horrifying conditions under which she died, they decided to do something about it. They founded their own asylum called the York Retreat.
At the York Retreat, treatment was based on the idea that “lunatics” had souls. Therefore the Quakers believed that the disabled deserved to be treated like human beings, not dumb beasts. Few restraints were used. Patients were encouraged to participate in outdoor activities, to practice simple arts and crafts, and to do productive work in the community. This basic philosophy, so revolutionary in its day, gradually became the operating philosophy for “lunatic” homes around the world. To this day the York Retreat model drives how we as a society try to treat the mentally disabled.
Meanwhile the Quakers were not done with the York Asylum. They were not content to allow other patients to suffer under the brutal conditions they had found inside the institution. Instead they managed to get a leading Quaker appointed as one of the patrons of the asylum, and in 1814 they were successful in bringing about a parliamentary inquiry into abuses at the hospital.The leadership and staff of the hospital were completely replaced and the asylum began to follow the kinder, gentler practices of the York Retreat. In following decades the asylum name changed to Bootham Park. Gradually it evolved into a modern psychiatric hospital. It closed in 2016.
The York Retreat continues operating today. It specializes in treating those with complex mental disorders like dementia, PTSD, autism, etc..
It’s interesting to think how Darcy and Elizabeth might have reacted to having a child with a disability, and how they would have viewed the rise of institutions like the York Retreat. I’d like to think that they would have made sure that any disabled child of theirs would enjoy a full, integrated life at Pemberley. And I’d love to see a story where Elizabeth champions the rights of the disabled and perhaps becomes a sponsor of the York Retreat.
As the mother of an autistic woman I am fascinated by how far we have progressed in our treatment of those with mental disabilities, and by how much some things have not changed. We still fight for people with disabilities to be looked at as human and worthy of inclusion in society. Perhaps that is a battle that will always have to be fought.
For further reading: A History of Disability
As a footnote, we have an excerpt from a piece on Jane Austen’s brother, George. It comes from Jane Austen’s World:
George Austen, Jane’s second oldest brother is an enigma, rarely glimpsed and hardly known to the world. No image exists of him, which is why the image I used for this post has no face to speak of. George Austen was thought to be mentally or physically impaired, or suffering from an infirmity. Nearly ten years older than Jane, Claire Tomalin wrote that he still lived in Steventon village in 1776 (See Boris’s comment in the comment section) and that the very young Jane knew him.
“He could walk, and he was not a Down’s Syndrome child, or he would not have lived so long, lacking modern medication. Because Jane knew deaf and dumb sign language as an adult — she mentioned talking “with my fingers” in a letter of 1808 — it is thought he may have lacked language; it would not have stopped him joining in the village children’s games.” – Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen, A Biography.
Meet Elaine Owen: In 2014, Elaine began to write Pride and Prejudice fan fiction and decided to publish her works herself to see if she might possibly sell a few copies. Thousands of books later, the results have been beyond her wildest hopes, and she plans to continue writing fiction for the foreseeable future.
When she’s not writing her next great novel, Elaine relaxes by working full time, raising two children with special needs, and earning a third degree black belt in karate. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Look for her on Facebook!