A new two-part documentary series, Secrets from the Asylum, investigates how mental health was treated in Victorian Britain.
This show highlights the practices of “Lunatic Asylums” as they were called and connects British celebrities to their ancestors who were treated in these asylums.
In episode one, English comedian Al Murray encounters the history of his great-great-great grandfather, novelist William Thackeray, who tried to help his wife, Isabella, with her post-partum depression by having her admitted to an asylum at the age of 23.
In episode two we learn about the history of Thackeray’s granddaughter, Virginia Woolf’s half-sister, Laura Stephen, who suffered from a learning disability and didn’t “fit in.”
An article by the producers of the show, Scottish Television, states:
Laura “was branded an imbecile and a potential embarrassment to her intellectual father, writer Leslie Stephen, and at the age of 22 was admitted to the Royal Earlswood Asylum.”
In the article Murray said: “What’s shocking about this is that Laura Stephen’s father Leslie was a member of the chattering classes. He couldn’t have been a more intelligent, plugged in, literary, engaged man with modern ideas.
The modern idea in the late 1800s was society was not to be undermined by people who were ‘feeble-minded’, so these people, for their own good and the good of society, were removed. It was the Victorian worry about the purity of the gene pool.”