Thanks to Pen and Sword History for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book that I voluntarily review.
As a psychiatrist, and having worked in forensic psychiatry in the UK for a number of years, mad or bad is indeed one of the questions that we’re asked very often. (Of course, the two categories are not mutually exclusive, but in the eyes of the law there are certain prerequisites that need to be complied with to be able to apportion guilt). Therefore, I was very curious to read this book that dealt with the issue of insanity and criminal justice in the Victorian era.
The book is divided into five parts, discussing the main players in the debate, the conditions that were listed under the insanity label, the history of the debate, a part discussing ‘mad women, bad women’, and the last and longest part that discusses in more detail the case studies that caused the debates and the legal changes discussed in the book.
Personally, I was fascinated by reading details about the cases behind some of the defences and legal terms still in use today. Having an overall view of the period and what was behind the discussions illuminates and helps explain the legal changes, placing them at a historical and social moment in time. As a psychiatrist, I was particularly interested in the issues of diagnosis and the discussions as to the different categories used to classify disturbed mental states, including some that sound difficult to believe now (like the many ‘women’s conditions’ that justified all kinds of crimes). Although the details of some of the cases and the discussions might sound bizarre, the truth is that matters are not that clear even now, and even if the debates are framed differently, a decision is not always easy to reach.
The case stories are fascinating to read in their own right and cover the most famous and relevant cases of the era. They provide a great overview without going into excessive detail and would be a good starting point for people who want to delve deeper into the subject, whilst providing a general background to others who might be looking for orientation and general reading on the topic. The book is well organised, written clearly, and provides a good summary of the main issues whilst illustrating them well without excess detail or the use of unnecessarily complicated terms.
A good read for anybody interested in issues of criminal justice, insanity and law in Victorian England, particularly those that pertain to the treatment of women by the legal system of the time. A word of warning: the passing of time hasn’t made these cases less upsetting or shocking, so although the book doesn’t dwell unnecessarily on the gore details, you might find some of them hard to read.