“You can never truly judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”
When I started researching my family history, I wanted to do more than just collect names, dates and places. I know that’s where you have to start, but that was never going to be enough. I’ve written before about how a family rumour, suggesting we had once been wealthy, had been a starting point for me. As I discovered more information, however, I found more questions that needed answering. Some surrounded the life of my great, great, grandmother, Harriet.
Until I started my research, I had no idea who she was or even her name. Of all the ancestors I’ve discovered, however, I believe she had one of the most intriguing lives.
She was the twelfth of thirteen children, but for some reason, out of all her siblings, she was the one ‘adopted’ by her father’s brother and his wife.
She died way back in the 1880s and so I have no knowledge of her character, but from several incidents that occurred during her life, I have pieced together details of the sort of person I think she could have been.
Initially, life seemed routine. She married and had two children in quick succession, something that would have been expected at the time. Then things took a turn. In 1871 she was admitted to a lunatic asylum, reportedly for depression, and stayed there for two months. When she came out, on paper at least, life appeared to return to normal. However, fourteen years later, she was admitted to the same asylum, again for another two months.
With no recent history of mental illness in the family, this made me wonder whether the ‘depression’ was a real event, triggered by her genetic make-up. Or did her admission to the asylum have a more sinister side?
Although depression was a reason for patients to be admitted into lunatic asylums, many were sent there for much more spurious reasons. As the image shows, being a woman was certainly high on the list of possible offences, especially if you dared to behave differently to the expectations of society.
Other parts of my research have led me to believe that Harriet was probably an intelligent woman. She could certainly read and write. In the 19th century, however, the idea that women could be intelligent or that they should be educated went against perceived medical opinion. Doctors argued that the physical demands of menstruation and the intellectual demands of studying were incompatible and that educating women would lead to mothers of puny, weakened and sickly children.
Building up a picture of Harriet, layer by layer, I wondered if maybe she was ahead of her time. Perhaps she was an intelligent woman who wanted to break free of the traditional role society planned for her. If this were the case, it was likely to have caused her untold trouble.
Taking this train of thought one step further, I came up with two scenario’s that could have seen her sent to the asylum:
- She was treated badly / repressed because she refused to conform. If so, this could have led to her depression.
- Because she was outspoken, those ‘responsible for her’, sent her to the asylum for ‘corrective’ therapy. Depression was just a convenient label to attach to her.
It’s quite possible that neither of these options applied to Harriet. The sad fact is, however, they were real for too many women of the time. As I was writing Harriet into my novel, I couldn’t help but give her a storyline to fit with the character I think she may have been. Even if it’s not true, it highlights the hurdles women faced and serves as a salient reminder of how far we’ve come in terms of gender equality.
The Ambition & Destiny Series is a five-part series set in Victorian Era England. Harriet’s story starts in Part 2, Less Than Equals, which will be published on July 17th 2017.
If you like heroines who are ahead of their time, and epic sagas set in Victorian Era England, click here to start the journey today … and walk a mile in Harriet’s shoes.