Seeing the scattered records of Maria Beauclerk brought together in a virtual file through the brilliant work by Frankie and Natalie was amazing. For me it symbolised what Ticehurst – for all its faults and Victorian prejudices – was genuinely trying to do: reintegrate shattered personalities and restore them to health. Beauclerk herself was seemingly beyond help as she never left the asylum.
My main task for the day was to compile brief biographies for the five patients I had selected as guinea pigs for the project. Although more by accident than design they turn out to be an interestingly diverse bunch: an incurable schizophrenic spinster from one of England’s premier landed families; the ‘nymphomanic’ wife of a possibly abusive husband ; a manic-depresssive author; a clergyman hymn-writer who may have been in the last stages of syphilis; and an exotic Egyptian prince despatched to England to deal with his acute paranoia.
This is all very well of course but the test of success will be to see if we can create a tool that allows researchers to track the careers of all one thousand or so patients through the Ticehurst archive. More than that, since most Victorian private (and for that matter public) asylums used standardised forms of record-keeping, how great it would be to develop a methodology that could be widely applicable across multiple digitised collections.
We ended the day by diving into the store to look at some of the records ‘in the flesh’. It doesn’t matter how good your digitised images are, it is always a surprise to see the actual paper documents: somehow they never seem to be the same size or quite the same colour you imagined looking at their surrogate on the screen. There are still some parts of our imagination it seems that lie just beyond the boundary of even the best digital technology.