Writing Research: Victorian-era Mental Asylums

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(These are not affiliate links, just books I use.)

One of the characters in the novel Porselein is in a type of asylum – which leads me to research the topic (seeing as what I already know is probably just enough to let me get it completely wrong).

Initial Sources

Two books I’ve come across in a quick search (and which I’m using as a starting point) are Mark Steven’s Life in a Victorian Asylum: The World of Nineteenth-Century Mental Health Care and Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum

After these, I’ll build my knowledge and get some more books or articles to read – including Nellie Bly’s works, which gives me the perspective of a woman (which I need for the book). Also, how bad-ass was Nellie Bly?

The same, but different

What I have in mind is not completely an insane asylum, but more an “asylum” for those “distressed” – to put it lightly – by their memory loss. So while they have what can be described as mental problems, they do not necessarily have a mental illness. (Memories make up a large part of the magic system in Porselein, as I’ll explain in a bit.)

So definitely not a Bedlam-like place…


I’ll also be looking for some (good) documentaries on the subject – if you know of any, please give me a shout!

Another source … sort of. But read it. It’s really good. Heartbreaking, but good. 

I found the site about the suitcases of Willard a few years ago and now there is also a book about them – The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, by Darby Penney, Peter Stastny, and photos by Lisa Rinzler.

Here’s the project’s website.  

Cover for Porselein by Carin Marais

Porselein’s magic system

The magic system of Porselein centres around masks and memories. The best masks are basically indistinguishable from the wearer’s real face, the magic imbued therein making it possible for the porcelain mask to move as an unmasked face would.

Memories are obtained in various different ways

Firstly, the memories of the mask maker themselves (as they can be male or female) may be used, though this seldom happens.

Secondly, the memories may be bought from a middleman called the Memory Sellers (“Herinnering Verkopers”). These sellers are those who are able to extract memories from people, but not make the masks that are imbued with the memories.

Thirdly, the memories may be obtained by the mask maker themselves who will extract them from someone – either the person who is receiving the mask or someone who is selling their memories.

The mask makers

The mask makers are born with the magic to make the masks and this magic usually run in families. This means that most of the richest families contain at least one mask maker.

The MC of Porselein, Lisjara Emmerly, is from a family that is not so well off, and the reason for that will become apparent during the story.

A full and comprehensive outline of the magic system will appear on my Patreon page.

Have a fantastic day GIF

By Carin Marais

Bibliophile, writer of speculative fiction, non-fiction, and maybe-fiction, language practitioner, doer of stuff.

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