This post was originally written for Deb Cooke’s blog, and can be seen here as well.
I have always been drawn to the darker, sadder side of history, the facts that aren’t told much because they aren’t pleasant to talk about. I believe survivors of tragedy deserve to have their stories told, and that the greatest hope can be found in facing the darkness with light. I’ve written about the London underworld of the rookeries, the devastation of grief when a family member is murdered, and now with The Mad Countess I’ve explored the dismal lives of patients in Regency lunatic asylums.
They say that writers face their greatest fears when they put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as is oft the case now). For me, this has always been true—my historical romances are dark and gritty, where the stakes are often life or death. I tap into the scariest corners of my mind in crafting the suspense subplot that runs through every book I write to some extent. It’s only through writing that I feel like I have control over the terrifying elements of the world, because in romances the happily ever after is assured, and all the more sweeter for the many, many difficulties the main characters have to overcome to get to that happiness.
In The Mad Countess, I faced another fear—one far more internal than my usual suspenseful subplots, as Claire’s family is cursed with madness. Claire’s fears that she will become trapped in her own mind, separated completely from reality, is one that many people may experience. While today we have healthy, safe treatment options for patients with mental illness, during the Regency madness was highly misunderstood and often equated to a death sentence for people viewed as “abnormal” by society. If they weren’t left to wander on the street, they were imprisoned in a lunatic asylum, where they were treated more like criminals than patients. Many stories still circulate about the horrors of being trapped in the public Bethlem Hospital, which functioned as an asylum for those of the lower classes. (Indeed, “Bedlam,” as the hospital was often called, was so much a part of the culture of the time that the word came to mean the general state of madness as well as the hospital.)
In The Mad Countess, Claire’s mother, the Marchioness of Brauning, is imprisoned in the private lunatic asylum Ticehurst, a real-life nineteenth-century institution for aristocrats and other members of the upper echelons of society. (You can actually view the entire case records for Ticehurst Asylum online and it is a treasure trove of information about the historical treatment of madness.) Ticehurst, with its gothic summer house, aviary, pagoda, and many acres of gardens was considered the best treatment money could buy. Noble families could send their mad relative off to Ticehurst and hope the rest of society forgot this apparent stain on their reputation.
But as you can see in the online records of Ticehurst, the outlook for mental patients in the nineteenth century was still quite bleak. In The Mad Countess, Claire’s mother drowns from a forced submergence of water in “the chair,” which bound all of the patient’s extremities and kept them upright as cold water was dumped on their head and warm water on their feet. The belief was that the cold water would “kill the mad idea” and rid of the body of mental derangement. (Obviously, this is not true.) Water therapy was used as a method of sedation, as a method of restraint (foregoing physical shackles in favor of the chair, bath box, or shower room), and also to bring out behavior that society viewed as more acceptable. In asylums, patients were also often shackled to the wall, and kept in rooms with metal bars across the windows or doors. Instead of feeling like a hospital, the asylums became more like prisons.
The treatments which I have discussed were not practiced by all doctors, thankfully. During the nineteenth century, reform-minded individuals worked to better the conditions for the mentally ill. And as with any historical research, it is important to keep in mind that we view all things from our modern-day standpoint—these treatments sound absolutely appalling to us, but at the time they may have been the best care available and not meant to deal harm. We have made a great many medical strides throughout the centuries.
It is with compassion and understanding then that we as writers try and relay these disheartening parts of history, in hopes that by showcasing what happened we learn to not make the same mistakes or inflict the same kinds of wounds. Ultimately, with dark romance, the goal is to present those fears, and in doing so give the reader a feeling of empowerment over their own demons. Claire conquers her curse, and you too can conquer the darkness in your past. Your future need not be defined by the wounds of your history.
Erica Monroe is a USA Today Bestselling Author of dark, suspenseful historical romance. She was a finalist in the published historical category for the prestigious Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Romantic Suspense, and her books have been recommended reads at Fresh Fiction, Smexy Books, SBTB, and All About Romance. When not writing, she is a chronic TV watcher, sci-fi junkie, and comic book fanatic. She lives in the suburbs of North Carolina with her husband, two dogs, and a cat. Visit Erica online at ericamonroe.com and sign up for her new release newsletter at bit.ly/mlem4.