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Part 1: The Herstorian Does Bridgerton - Disability in 19th Century England

Everyone at The Herstorian has been GLUED to Bridgerton. I'm not ashamed to say I've already binge-watched it twice and the news of a second series has made me think it's time for a third viewing!



Anyway, one of the reasons we love it so much is its focus on themes and issues which period dramas don't routinely touch on. For me, one of the parts that really resonated was Simon's struggle with a stammer and how it led his father to cruelly label him an "idiot."


When I was researching my last book about the infamous Victorian poisoner, Christiana Edmunds, I got very close and personal with her family. Christiana was the second of 7 children born to William Edmunds, a successful architect, and his wife, Ann. But it was the youngest of the Edmunds bunch, Arthur, that I want to talk about today.


Arthur was born in October 1841, a happy and healthy baby with no signs of illness. This was a huge relief because the last two children born to Ann and William - Frederick and Ellen - had both died in infancy. Family life was now joyous, but, financially, this was a trying time for the Edmunds. William, whose architectural career showed no signs of decline in the 1830s, had his income halved before Arthur's first birthday. With no new clients on the horizon, he was stressed and agitated most of the time. The situation grew worse. He started raving about owning "millions of money" and attempted to knock down the family physician with a ruler. In 1843, Ann took the difficult decision to place her husband in an asylum.


We don't know much about the details of Arthur's life in the next decade. His father died in 1847 and the family left their hometown of Margate to start afresh in Canterbury. Arthur is not listed in the family home when the 1851 census was taken, so he was likely away at school. But, by 1853, Arthur had left school and was about to leave the family home for the very last time.


By the time he was 13, Arthur was frequently experiencing bouts of uncontrollable anger. He was violent at times and frequently had seizures. His mother, Ann, wondered if these sudden changes to her son's health and wellbeing were the direct result of a minor head injury he had received in 1852. Whatever the case, Arthur was diagnosed with epilepsy by the family physician in 1853.


Today, epilepsy is a well-understood and commonly known neurological disorder that affects about 600,000 people in the UK. It is categorised as a disability and protected under the Equality Act. But in the mid-19th century, medical ideas about epilepsy and attitudes towards those affected by it were very different. Many doctors at this time believed that epilepsy was caused by excessive masturbation, as shown in this quote from Samuel Auguste Tissot, a well-known and respected physician:


"Too great a quantity of semen being lost in the natural course produces direful effects: but they are still more dreadful when the same quantity has been dissipated in an unnatural manner."


French physician, Jean Alfred Fournier, echoes Tissot's idea:


"There are very few physicians who have not observed cases where it has been produced, maintained or aggravated by the pernicious habit."


Of course, we now know that epilepsy has absolutely no causal relationship with masturbation, but this link was well-established and rarely questioned in the 19th century. What's interesting is that it places the blame squarely on the individual: that it was somehow Arthur's 'fault' that he was now experiencing epileptic symptoms.


Having researched the Edmunds family extensively and for the better part of two years, I believe that Arthur's symptoms were the result of untreated syphilis - transmitted from his father to his mother. I'm not going to go into detail on that in this post. What matters for us is that Arthur's fate was now sealed. Just as Bridgerton's Simon was hidden away from the world in an attempt to conceal his "affliction," so too was Arthur Edmunds. Any hint of a physical disability or "taint" of affliction was enough to stigmatise the entire family.


By 1860, Arthur's symptoms had worsened considerably and he was transferred to the Royal Earlswood Asylum, a purpose-built facility for "idiots and imbeciles." Earlswood was a relatively new institution, having opened only five years earlier. Arthur was one of around 500 patients. In contrast to many other asylums at this time, there were plenty of training and educational opportunities on offer. The goal was to try and rehabilitate patients so that they could return home and be less of a "burden" to their families. We don't know what specific plans were put in place for Arthur, but it is likely that his mother did not intend for Earlswood to become his permanent home - though, sadly, that's what happened.


Royal Earlswood Asylum in Surrey

When Arthur arrived at Earlswood, the medical superintendent was a man called John Langdon-Down (famous for his description of Down's Syndrome, from which the condition takes his name). Langdon-Down was not medically trained, but he had a brilliant mind and genuine enthusiasm and passion for his post. Under his charge, punishments were banned, staff training improved and amusements introduced for the patients. When researching Langdon-Down for my book, I got a real sense that he cared deeply for those in his care. Unsurprisingly, Earlswood's reputation at this time was unparalleled by any other asylum in the country.


John Langdon-Down

Tragically, any attempts at rehabilitating Arthur were brought to an abrupt end by his death in January 1866. There were two causes of death cited on the certificate: epilepsy and marasmus. The latter is a historic term for severe malnutrition. Was Arthur the victim of neglect? I find it hard to believe that he was abused under Langdon-Down's management, but we'll never know for certain. Interestingly, Arthur's eldest brother, William, went on to become the superintendent of the asylum on Robben Island, once the home of Nelson Mandela. I have often wondered if Arthur's experiences in the asylum system inspired William to take that role. So many questions are left unanswered.


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