Bedlam: London and Its Mad by Catharine Arnold

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Bedlam: London and Its Mad by Catharine Arnold

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: An account of London's notorious 'mad' hospital, Bethlehem, as well as case histories of people who suffered from madness, and the varying attitudes of public and medical authorities to the condition, from Roman and Saxon times to the present day.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: August 2008
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
ISBN: 978-1847370006

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At the very least, this book is a salutary reminder that every time we read or hear anything about mental health issues, or care in the community, our ancestors used to talk about madness and disease – the two often being inseparable. For hundreds of years, even less than a century ago, people suffering from no more than acute depression were treated in a manner which sounds horrific today.

The illustration on the front jacket, a detail from one of William Hogarth's 18th-century series The Rake's Progress, says much about prevailing attitudes and perception at the time. A debtor, his head shaved, is incarcerated and surrounded by a crowd of gaolers and keepers while other unfortunate souls look on. People suffering from what the French called la maladie anglaise were regarded as freaks, little better than criminals. They were dumped in London's Bethlehem Hospital, alias Bedlam, founded in 1247, where they were often lucky (make that unlucky, perhaps) to survive the attentions of their staff. It was common practice for the doctors to prescribe without examining their patients first, and sometimes interviewing them only seven days after they had been admitted.

Even some famous people went mad, and were fortunate not to be placed in these hellholes. Samuel Johnson suffered a nervous breakdown during a vacation from Oxford University, never fully recovered, and did not return to finish his degree, but developed coping mechanisms such as reading himself to sleep and leaving a light burning to frighten his demons away. William Blake was considered unhinged almost from birth, and regularly punished by his mother when he claimed he could see angels hovering about his father's hosiery shop. The Victorian artist Richard Dadd was confined in Bethlehem after experiencing mental problems and stabbing his father to death, but thankfully received humane treatment and was allowed all the art materials he wanted plus a large airy room in which to work. He died of tuberculosis in Broadmoor in 1886. Closer to our own time, the cat artist Louis Wain found Bethlehem a sanctuary, an asylum in the more genial sense of the word, from the outside world in which he was at length unable to cope.

The pages on shell shock and the Great War make grim reading. Some army doctors thought soldiers suffering from the condition were malingerers and should be court-martialled and shot. Even as recently as the 1970s alternative therapies such as Primal Scream and Transactional Analysis were on the whole a playground for dubious and narcissistic practitioners, unregulated by any professional code.

Fortunately we have come a long way from the 14th century when people suffering from everything from epilepsy and learning difficulties to hydrophobia were regarded as mad. If we go back further, there was a time when it was believed that women of childbearing age were driven mad by their own wombs wandering about their bodies and choking them, and constant pregnancy was believed the only cure.

This book is full of case histories, occasionally amusing but more often disturbing and quite sad, set against the backdrop of London's 'mad' hospital in its various locations in and near London. I was intrigued to learn that the concept of Care in the Community originated with Enoch Powell, when he declared in 1961 that the 'great' Victorian asylums were prisons which should be swept away. Above all it is an engrossing account of the public's perception of madness as well as the medical world's differing attitudes towards treatment of the 'afflicted'.

Our thanks to Simon & Schuster for sending a copy to Bookbag.

If you enjoyed this title, why not try Shadows Of The Workhouse: The Drama Of Life In Postwar London by Jennifer Worth.

Booklists.jpg Bedlam: London and Its Mad by Catharine Arnold is in the Top Ten Books About London.

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