PhD research: Printing and Periodical Culture in the Nineteenth-Century Asylum, by Mila Daskalova

Printing and Periodical Culture in the Nineteenth-Century Asylum

By Mila Daskalova

‘Almost every class or clique in society has its representative in the “fourth estate.” And why should not we? […] Nay, we are in a manner compelled to advocate our own interests by means of the ‘Press;’ because our existence has either been altogether ignored, or the phases of our secluded life have been grossly misrepresented in what is called, with a wonderful vanity and complacency on the part of outsiders, “the world.” Too long has the finger either of pity or scorn been pointed at us; too long have we been misunderstood and misrepresented.’ So begins the first issue of Excelsior; or, Murray’s Royal Asylum Literary Gazette, which carried patients’ writings beyond the walls of the institution for twenty-one years (1857-1878). Excelsiorwas not a unique publication. In fact, since the 1830s several mental asylums had published periodicals written, edited and sometimes printed by patients. The practice originated almost simultaneously in Scotland and America and remained particularly popular there until the end of the century. I have discovered six Scottish and seven American titles so far, the earliest of which appeared in 1837. By the 1860s the practice had reached English institutions too.

My doctoral project discusses asylum periodicals as a publishing as well as medical phenomenon and explores the therapeutic potential of periodical printing. Interested in the functions and meanings of print in the nineteenth century English-speaking world, I am researching the ways in which asylum periodicals were produced, circulated, advertised and received. The genre emerged at a crucial point in the history of print. By the 1830s, the periodical press had established itself as a highly influential communication platform. What technological, socio-economic and cultural developments enabled the printing press to find its way inside American and Scottish asylums is hence at the core of my inquiry.

These publications fulfilled several functions. They were a part of the larger therapeutic framework in mental institutions. Their production and consumption were intended to distract patients from their troubling thoughts and fantasies. Like other forms of work and entertainment in asylums, reading, writing and printing periodicals interrupted the monotony and boredom of the daily life of inmates. Occasionally, the work at the printing press became more than a pastime: some of the patients involved in the periodicals’ production used the experience they gained during their stay in institutions after their discharge to pursue careers in publishing. When periodicals were circulated outside asylums, they also allowed superintendents to advertise their institutions and attract donations and funding. Some of them, as the quotation from Excelsiorshows, fought the negative image of asylums and the stigma of mental illness.

The circulation of asylum periodicals within and outside institutions had another effect, which went beyond the therapeutic and promotional agendas of superintendents. The shared experience of making and reading these periodicals contributed to the promotion of a sense of belonging and agency among patients. Like other periodical publications, asylum periodicals had an important role in the construction of identities and in the facilitation of social and cultural exchanges. Indeed, there is evidence that they connected patients from different asylums. For instance, patients from the Aberdeen Royal Asylum, Hanwell Asylum in London and St. Patrick’s Hospital in Dublin sent contributions to the Morningside Mirror, published in the Edinburgh Royal Asylum. Exchanges were happening across the Atlantic too: Excelsior of the Murray Royal Asylum in Perth published several reviews of American asylum periodicals and lists of British and American titles. This interrelatedness between asylums and the patients in them suggests the existence of a cross-institutional and even cross-national patient communities united by their own literature.

I see the asylum periodical as an invaluable resource in the longstanding debate regarding the conflicting representation of the lunatic asylum as a space of both incarceration and healing. As joint productions of institutions and patients, asylum periodicals offer insight into institutional life and the interactions between patients, asylum staff and the local community outside asylums. Of course, they have their limitations. Participation in their production was subject to patients’ mental state and social factors such as class, education and gender. Moreover, one should assume at least a minimal degree of institutional supervision even for publications that claimed to be produced ‘entirely by patients’. If treated with care, however, the asylum periodical can be a rich historical resource that accommodates individual and collective voices of staff and patients, invites renegotiations of the boundaries between normality and madness, and facilitates exchanges between asylums and the outside world.

Bio: Mila Daskalova is a PhD candidate at the University of Strathclyde, supervised by Prof Kirstie Blair and Prof Matthew Smith. Her research is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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