Posted by: Kirsty | January 16, 2009

Bedlam: London and its Mad – Catharine Arnold (2008)

Bedlam,  Bethlem Royal Hospital, must surely be one of the most famous hospitals in the world. It’s been around, one way or another, since 1247 and is infamous as a lunatic asylum. In this surprisingly short book (277 pages) Catharine Arnold maps the history of the hospital itself against the history of the ways in which the mad were treated, and against what she sees as a rising tide of madness within society.

Having read quite a lot about (specifically 19th century) psychiatric reform  in 2007 for an essay I was writing, which compared Colney Hatch Asylum in Middlesex with The Great Exhibition of 1851. It’s not as bizarre as it sounds, by the way, I got a pretty decent mark for it. But anyway, I have for a while been interested in the ways in which the mad were perceived and treated. This book did much to fill in the gaping abysses in my knowledge, tracing the story of Bedlam from the 13th century, and it threw up lots of head-shakingly-interesting anecdotes and portraits of patients through the centuries. For example, the American marine, William Norris, who was kept chained to a wall for twelve solid years, until his intestines burst. Urgh.

rakesprogress8 Above: From William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress, where the Rake ends up in Bedlam.

There is an interesting chapter on women and madness too, and while you may not learn anything new if you’ve already read Elaine Showalters’s fantastic book The Female Malady, Arnold brings the salient points together, and gives an illuminating comparison of two archtypal “mad women” in literature: Miss Haversham from Great Expectations and Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre. While I didn’t read anything in that chapter that I didn’t already know, I’m pleased that it’s there and that the unfair treatment shown to women in psychiatric hospitals (especially in the supposedly more-humane Victorian era) is given the space and consideration it deserves. Women in the mental health system (if you could call it that in history) have always had a bad time of it. Even the Ancient Greeks thought that women’s wombs sent them mad by coming loose within their bodies and (literally) choking them. And we thought them classical fellas knew everything…

bedlam1There is also a vivid account of anti-Catholic rioting, which lapped at the walls of Bedlam (not to mention Newgate Prison and goodness knows how many other famous institutions) in 1780, and while I’m not totally convinced that Arnold’s claim that the riots were symptomatic of a wider sense of madness within London – I rather think that the madness was confined to the rioters, even though there were thousands of them – it’s always good to read about historical and cultural context. I also think that the section towards the end of the book on shell shock during and after The Great War could have been tied more specifically to Bedlam, like the rest of the book, but I certainly don’t think it was badly written by any manner of means. It’s all fascinating stuff. I just wondered how many shell shock patients Bedlam itself ended up with, and how they treated them.

These minor niggles aside, I was impressed with the book, and despite its less-than-cheery subject matter, it was very easy to read. Catharine Arnold has also written Necropolis: London and its Dead, which Catherine recently reviewed over at Victorian Geek, and which is already sitting on my Amazon Wishlist.



  1. Field trip?

  2. As in, shall we go on one?

  3. Oooh – I might now be adding this to my wishlist as well. I’d like to know more about Bedlam and I really like mapping history of mad and treatment against one institution.
    I love the Female Malady and was a huge Roy Porter fan. The other person you might already be looking at but Sally Shuttleworth and Helen Small’s books are also really worth reading.

  4. I’m very encouraged by the positive response to my book! Thanks, ladies! You might also enjoy Necropolis, which is about London and death . . .


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