Bedlam: A Novel of Love and Madness

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9780312354749: Bedlam: A Novel of Love and Madness

An extraordinary novel of three people caught up in the turmoil of the late eighteenth century, their lives intertwined in an age of war and revolution Bedlam's eighteenth-century London is a city teetering between darkness and light, struggling to find its way to a more just and humane future. But in its darkest corners, where noblemen, pickpockets, royalists, and republicans jostle one another for power and where corruption is all in a day's work, Greg Hollingshead finds humanity, truth, decency, and forgiveness.
Conspiracies, plots, and paranoia sweep across England in the aftermath of the French Revolution, landing James Tilly Matthews in Bethlem Hospital, a notorious, crumbling home for the insane. Although he is clearly delusional, Matthews appears to be incarcerated for political reasons. Margaret, his beloved wife, spends years trying to free her often lucid husband, but she is repeatedly blocked by her chief adversary, John Haslam, Bethlem's apothecary and chief administrator. Haslam, torn between his conscience and a desire to further his career through studying his increasingly famous patient, becomes another puppet in a game governed by shifting rules and shadowy players.
Enlivened with wit and intellectual daring and written in prose that resonates with time and place, Bedlam sweeps the reader into a strange yet somehow recognizable world. From the enduring love of Matthews and his wife, to the despair of Bethlem's inmates, to the moral agonies of John Haslam, Greg Hollingshead's eye for rendering the human condition has never been finer. This is a novel that pulses with insight and compassion, in which imagination bridges the chasms between fantasy and reality, love and hate, and loss and reconciliation.

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About the Author:

Greg Hollingshead has won Canada's Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction for The Roaring Girl and is the author of The Healer, which won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and was a Giller Prize finalist. He lives in Edmonton, where he is professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, and he is also director of writing programs at the Banff Centre. Visit his Web site at www.greghollingshead.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One 
Escape
 
What woke me I don't know. His ragged breathing perhaps.
 
My first sight: two blood-encrusted hands outstretched above me, as in benediction, obscuring the face though not the nakedness. Yet I knew those hands as I knew the nakedness, or would have, except that above them gleamed a moonlit curve of shaved scalp.
 
My first thought: Who does this tonsured priest think he'd exonerate before he climbs on? But it was no priest, it was my own husband James, ascertaining my mental health by the magnetic condition of my head.
 
"Jamie! What happened to your clothes?"
 
"Sir Archy sold them."
 
"Who's he?"
 
"A monster of depravity. You're stripped on admission for delousing then tossed a blanket-gown to shiver in. Mine caught on the wall as I jumped down. I pelted it here naked--Mags?" He was finished his diagnosis of my head. "The signs aren't good. I never saw anybody so wide open for habitation." He rose from his crouch. "It's a good thing I'm out. I can take you back."
 
"To Bethlem?"
 
"Best madhouse in the kingdom. And Thomas Monro the best mad-doctor who ever lived." The pride he spoke this with seemed to offer testimony to how bad things had been for him there.
 
"Monro of Bethlem," I said.
 
"Physician in charge. Like his father and his father before him. And son after, I'll wager."
 
"But Bethlem's not a private hospital, surely, to be run dynastically?"
 
When Jamie said no, it was not, and began a detailed account of the history and governance of Bethlem Hospital, I was too distressed to listen. Even when not in his right mind he was not one to miss a meaning. It was another sign how far Bethlem had pushed him. I was out of bed, lighting the lamp, the taper shaking in my hand. What to dress him in? It was February. He was blue-lipped, shivering so hard he could scarcely sound words. Who says the mad don't feel the cold? The problem was, the one outfit of trousers, shirt, and coat he'd not lost in France he'd had stolen in Bethlem.
 
"--though I never met him myself."
 
"Never met who?" I cried.
 
"Monro."
 
"They've kept you a month and you've not yet met the physician?"
 
"Not so much as his satchel."
 
He too now seemed struck by the admission. He rubbed at his neck. He was leaner by a good stone than I ever knew him, and in the lamplight I saw to my dismay that much of what I'd assumed to be smeared dirt was gashes and fresh blood studded with cinders. This would be from tumbles and scrapes on the way, though some of it might have happened inside, there was no way to know. Every day for the past three weeks I had been to the gates, but they wouldn't let me in, saying he refused to see me and blamed me for his incarceration. And yet for the first week after he was admitted I had no idea of his whereabouts, and even began to fear he'd gone to France, for a fifth time. It was not until I received a letter from the clerk of Bethlem Hospital, a Mr. Poynder, saying my husband was now their patient at the expense of Camberwell Parish, that I knew where he was.
 
"It's only the apothecary sees me," Jamie said.
 
"The apothecary? Isn't he just a nostrum-seller?"
 
"Not this one. He doses us all right, but he also runs the place. John Haslam. I call him Jack the Schoolmaster, because he's inhabited. He's new there, only eighteen months, very capable, yet there's something about him. His vault to Apothecary of Bethlem has made him king, but is it only of a dunghill? And what of all these responsibilities dumped on him when he has no say in treatment and no authority to discipline the keepers? Yet why should he have? Who but a low-born, impoverished, uncredentialed medical man would choose the profession of mad-doctor? Though he's undergone training aplenty--at St. Bartholomew's, Edinburgh, Uppsala, and Cambridge--he's come away with no medical degree. This in itself is no mystery when you realize he couldn't afford one and, if he could, lacks the advantages of breeding necessary to assemble a lucrative practice. Why pay for what won't? He's one of those who speaks his mind, if only you could tell what he was thinking as he did it. He's an article of clothing you're drawn to in the shop, but you can't be sure if it's in the best taste or the worst. All you know is how struck you are by it and, if you ever wore it in public, you'd create a wonderful stir, but you have no idea what kind of stir it would be."
 
As Jamie talked, it was articles of clothing I was piling in his arms. He sniffed at them.
 
"Please put them on," I said and crossed to the wardrobe, to dress myself. When I looked over at him, I saw the black-bloody footprints he'd tracked from the bedside, and clearer than before, because he'd shuffled round to watch me and was now full-lit by the lamp, I saw the grim state of his wounds. "Dear God, Jamie! You've butchered your feet! And your knees and arms too--they're bleeding pulps!"
 
He set the clothes on the bed and cautiously lifted one elbow, then the other, peering at them. "From coming over the Bethlem wall," he explained. "Did you know pineapples once adorned it? A few yet remain, I'll show you. It's because you need to be a monkey to climb up, and then it's such a long fall you think you'll never land, you think you've been excused, you think, Flight! Am I bird now? and that's when you're smashed by such a terrific force of gravel and frozen earth you think you'll never rise again."
 
I took the clothes from my poor madman to help him dress.
 
He refused to lift his arms.
 
"Jamie, what is it?"
 
"This is my old friend Robert Dunbar's shirt. I know the stripe."
 
"Jamie, we've talked about this. You understand what happened. I've never betrayed you, you know that."
 
"It won't fit," he said, not listening. "The pants less."
 
"We'll roll the cuffs."
 
"And roll with them too, right, Mags?"
 
"But the boots won't fit you."
 
"Nor mine ever Robert Dunbar."
 
Copyright © 2004 by Greg Hollingshead. All rights reserved.

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