In Elizabeth Gaskell's 1855 short story, "Half a Life-Time Ago," Susan Dixon faces a difficult choice regarding her younger brother, who has gone insane after an illness: should she try to care for him at home or commit him to the nearby Lancaster Asylum? Although fictional, Susan's situation highlights an important Victorian debate about the care of the insane and the reformation of public asylums. This debate, and the changes enacted by nineteenth-century asylum reformers as a result of the cultural conversation, brought new attention to the relationship between the mind, the body, and the will as the concept of moral management as a method of treatment for the insane gained popularity. Dr. Samuel Gaskell, Commissioner in the English Lunacy Commission, Supervisor of the Lancaster Asylum, and Elizabeth's brother-in-law, dedicated his career to implementing the tenets of moral management in the institutions within his purview. For proponents like Dr. Gaskell, the moral management method of treatment restored dignity to patients by giving them the responsibility to bring themselves--through self-discipline, labor, and the exercise of will--back to sanity and thus back into the communities from which their illness excluded them. Many who supported asylum reform regarded moral management as a revolutionary tool with the power to restore happiness and peace to individuals, families, and institutions struggling to deal humanely with insanity. Susan Dixon's exploration of the parameters of moral management as a method of treatment for her bother, however, calls its effectiveness into question. Although Susan is an exemplary moral manager and diligently attempts to re-train her brother by utilizing the principles that Dr. Gaskell used to reform Lancaster Asylum, her implementation of moral management causes the destruction of the Dixon household and the physical, social, and mental disintegration of Susan herself. As Susan and her brother demonstrate in what might be regarded as Gaskell's fictional case study of her brother-in-law's beliefs, no amount of moral management can successfully treat insanity, and insisting that such a program might be undertaken by the insane--or by others on their behalf--is woefully miscalculated.
College and Department
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Larsen, Erica, ""Strength Both of Mind and Body": Asylum Reform and the Failure of Moral Management in Elizabeth Gaskell's "Half a Life-Time Ago"" (2020). Theses and Dissertations. 8667.
moral management, Elizabeth Gaskell, Samuel Gaskell, insanity, asylums, asylum reform