Archive for April, 2011

Book Review: ‘Beyond the Glass’ and ‘The Vet’s Daughter’

Following our call for book reviews from our readers back in February, Michelle Kopczyk contributed this post from Canada, which coincidentally builds on our recent In the Spotlight on novelist Antonia White:

“Clara Batchelor is twenty-two. Her brief, doomed marriage to Archie ended, she returns to her parents hoping for comfort. But theirs is a strict Catholic home, and its confines form a dangerous glass wall of guilt and repression between Clara and the outside world. Clara both longs for and fears what lies beyond, yet when she escapes into an exhilarating and passionate love affair, her fragile identity cracks. An extraordinary portrayal of a woman’s descent into madness.” May Quartet

Beyond the Glass is the last book in a trilogy-sequel to Frost in May (which I feel is White’s strongest novel).

The central theme in Beyond the Glass is the main character’s (Clara) mental deterioration–absence of identity, depression, great exultation, delusions, incarceration–and recovery. White experienced this in her early twenties, an affliction that revisited her a few times during her life.

The story is tragic. It is about loss and the reluctant acceptance of it. It also evokes a strange sense of hope, that Clara is moving towards developing a sense of self. In contrast, Barbara Comyn’s novel The Vet’s Daughter is similar in feeling, but it has a fantastical element that, unlike Beyond the Glass, mitigates the sense of tragedy for the central character and reinforces, what I believe to be the Vet’s Daughter‘s central theme, the sense of doom of being a human being. White’s novel is unbridled and hard to take in parts—on my third try, I got through it.

White, A. (1980) Beyond the Glass, Virago Press, London

Comyns, B. (1981) The Vet’s Daughter, Virago Modern Classics, London

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Medicine at the Margins: Conference on Medicine Beyond the Orthodox, 1500 – 2000

Shortly before Easter, the University of Glamorgan hosted an interesting one day conference on ‘medicine at the margins’, exploring ideas, knowledge and practice within aspects of medicine that have been considered (or portrayed) as beyond the boundaries of acceptability and legitimacy. Between 1500 and 2000, such borders have frequently shifted; thus, speakers looked at the way the status of such concepts as folk lore, magical healing, ‘quack’ remedies and herbal medicine have held a very different status at various times, as well as the ways certain illnesses or injuries, for example neuropathic pruritus or self-harm, can serve to put patients outside the limits of “respectability”.

Certain concepts have fallen at the crossroads between medicine and myth. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century French ethnographers collected supernatural tales of ordinary peoples’ experiences concerning werewolves. These were often dismissed as psychological delusions by contemporary commentators, as indicated by the inclusion of “lycanthropy,” as a “striking example of the superstructure of psychdopathy on fable” in Daniel Hack Tuke’s 1892 Dictionary of Psychological Medicine. Yet speaker Will Pooley argued that these stories can provide a much richer understanding of French rural life than either contemporary medicine, or modern historiography, has indicated, including villagers’ fears of duplicity, but also a deep underlying pity for those, like the supposed werewolf, perceived to have transgressed the limits of the community.

In addition to the academic papers at the conference, researchers from CISSMI (Collaborative Interdisciplinary Study of Science, Medicine and the Imagination, a group from Cardiff University and the University of Glamorgan) introduced an exhibition that will form one of the outcomes of their “Off Sick” project. This project explores the role of narrative in understandings of illness, incorporating historical and literary research to explore the experiences of people and families who have been affected by severe or long-term illness in South Wales. The project particularly concentrates on the experiences of carers, a much neglected area in the history of medicine and literature. To find out more about the project, visit:

http://literatureandscience.research.glam.ac.uk/cissmi/offsick/about/

To read abstracts of the conference papers, visit: http://history.research.glam.ac.uk/margins/

In the Spotlight: Antonia White

Philip O’Connor, the writer highlighted in last month’s In the Spotlight, wrote of his sense that “a thick glass pane…had been fixed between [him] and the world” upon his departure from the intense, even ‘intellectual’ environment of the Maudsley Hospital.

To another author of the same generation, who experienced the equally heightened atmosphere of the wards of Bethlem Hospital, the divider that mattered most was not a metaphorical one that separated her emotionally from others, but the window pane of her room at hospital, through which “she could see into a garden” in which “women and nurses were walking…like figures cut out of coloured paper”.

“And she could see birds flying across the sky, not real birds, but bird-shaped kites, lined with strips of white metal, that flew on wires. Only the clouds had thickness and depth and looked as clouds had looked in the other world. …They would take shape after shape to amuse her, shapes of swans, of feathers, of charming ladies with fluffy white muffs and toques, of soldiers in white busbies.”

Upon her departure from Bethlem, her perspective was reversed to that of someone on the outside looking in. “She no longer belonged to the world beyond the glass. There were moments when she almost wished she did. … Beyond the glass, however agonising the nightmare experiences, they had had a peculiar intensity.”

These quotations are from Beyond the Glass, the last novel in a trilogy of autobiographical fiction written by Antonia White (1899-1980). Nine months’ residence at Bethlem in 1922-23, when the hospital was located in Southwark, is vividly represented in this novel. This is not the place to attempt a summary either of the work or the life of its author. The dust-jacket of Jane Dunn’s 1998 biography of White promises a study of a “single parent and working mother” who “wrestled with the large questions of faith … Catholicism … being a woman and an artist”, not to mention “the threat of madness” (Antonia White: A Life). This is sufficient reason, we think, to read White’s novels (maybe Dunn’s biography too). In them White gives evocative, and at times searing, accounts of her experiences in and out of hospital.

Then for the short story ‘Surprise Visit’ (published in an anthology entitled Strangers), White drew upon her experience of returning, out of curiosity, to the Southwark site of her hospitalisation, some time after Bethlem had relocated to Beckenham and the Imperial War Museum had moved in. There White attributed to her protagonist the “peculiar satisfaction” she no doubt felt “to measure how far and how successfully she had travelled since that deplorably bad start”.

Antonia White

Used by kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery

Inside the Dome: Photographs

You might remember that, last September, the Imperial War Museum opened up the dome (formerly the chapel of Bethlem Hospital) for Open House weekend. We’re hoping the same event will go ahead this year. In the meantime, however, we were lucky enough to be back in the dome for an event at the beginning of April, and would like to share some of our photographs with those of you who haven’t had the opportunity to visit.

It was a gloriously sunny day, with plenty of light spilling through the high windows: the perfect conditions for viewing the bright, white room. The dome has required much restoration over the years, particularly after a devastating arson attack. However, it is still easy to picture the former uses of the room, from chapel to reading room, as you can see in the images below.

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Inside the Dome, a set on Flickr.

Stories Awaiting Discovery

Last year, when highlighting the inclusion of searchable text from the minutes of the Court of Governors of Bethlem and Bridewell Hospitals from 1689 to 1800 in London Lives, an electronic resource for the history of London, we also reminded blog readers of the online availability of digital page-by-page images of minutes dating from 1559 to 1792 on the Archives & Museum’s own website. Not everyone’s research is limited to the eighteenth century. Nor is everyone’s research limited to Bethlem Hospital.

Bridewell Hospital, which for most of its history functioned as a reformatory for petty offenders, vagrants and orphans, and with which Bethlem was twinned from the sixteenth century to the twentieth, is the subject of a great deal of scholarly interest in its own right. A recent post on a blog of King’s College London called Strandlines is a small example of this. The civic hypocrisy (and, perhaps, the connivance with Jacobean society’s gendered power relations) of the episode the post recounts – in which degrading punishments were meted out to Agnes Allowin and Mary Brookes, while no serious effort to find ‘Captain North’ seems to have been made – is almost as shocking as the cruelty involved.

This is just one of thousands of human stories that are waiting to be discovered (by anyone who is equal to the palaeographical challenge) in the early modern records of Bridewell and Bethlem Hospitals records.

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Caption for image: Bridewell and Bethlem Court Book extract about Mary Brookes and Agnes Allowin, 1603.

In the Frame for April 2011

One of our volunteers has chosen to write about Herbrand Ignouville-Williams’ Purple Finger Painting, and the mescaline experiments conducted by Drs Eric Guttman and Walter Maclay in the 1930s (which was the subject of a temporary exhibition at the Bethlem Gallery last September) which inspired it. She writes:

In previous studies, Guttman and Maclay had noticed that although schizophrenic sufferers often wanted to create art in an attempt to ‘explain themselves’, only a small proportion of sufferers possessed the technical ability to translate these hallucinations into art. Therefore, like-minded professional artists such as Ignouville-Williams, who shared the doctors’ interests in the unconscious and irrational, were invited to take part in these experiments exploring experimental psychosis and the results offer a revealing insight into the psychology of those involved.

Herbrand Ignouville-Williams was an active member of an art collective called The White Stag group, which he co-founded in 1934 with Kenneth Hall and Basil Rakoczi, who was to remain a close friend until Herbrand’s untimely death in the 1940s. Rakoczi had a lifelong interest in gypsy law and the occult, and turned his hand to commercial art before turning his attention to painting and psychology. When they met in 1933, after recently serving in the first world war, Herbrand was a mature student of medicine at Cambridge, and in the midst of a disintegrating marriage. This world of bohemian art to which Rakoczi belonged intrigued Herbrand. He wrote in a letter to his mother; “I should be so much happier living quietly with Benny [Rakoczi], meeting artists and musicians and interesting people with ideas.” Ignouville-Williams had also started to study psychology. He introduced Rakoczi to the subject and this remained a lifelong interest to him. Rokoczi’s subsequent work in psychology, which was extensive, was based on his own experience in the mid 1930’s with analyst Karin Stephen, with whom he underwent a “full Freudian analysis”. In late 1933, Rakoczi and Ignouville-Williams set up the Society for Creative Psychology at Rakoczi’s studio in London with the aim of developing the techniques of Freudian Psychological analysis.

In an attempt to avoid conscription, the members of the White Stag group based themselves in Dublin during the war, where they developed a reputation in the city as leading ‘cutting edge’ artists with their calendar of lectures, parties and exhibitions. In all of their exhibitions, the works were diverse in character, ranging from surrealist-inspired images to abstract, semi-representational and symbolist pieces.

The major event in the White Stag calendar in 1945 was the publication of Herbrand’s book, Three Painters, which studied the work of Basil Rakoczi, Kenneth Hall and Patrick Scott, and is the definitive statement of the philosophy of Subjective Art as interpreted by the White Stag artists. In its preface, Herbert Read said ‘modern art allowed greater freedom of artistic expression’. It was, he said, ‘the imagination itself that… lost its shackles’ and Freud was considered to be the source of that release. The group employed the method of Subjective Art where ‘the theme, instead of being drawn from objects in the external world, is elaborated by the workings of the imagination turned inwards upon the memories, dreams and phantasies of the Unconscious’. To Herbrand, the unconscious, and in particular the creative power of the numen, ‘the fountain-head of all artistic and cultural achievement’ was the source of such activity by means of which art obtained ‘its elusive, magical quality’ . These observations seem to be heavily influenced by his experiences with experimental psychosis.

LDBTH82-Mescaline Painting - Purple Finger Painting (1936) b

Jane Fradgley Exhibition at the Bethlem Gallery: ‘Folding Space’ opens 13 April

Jane Fradgley’s first solo show runs at the Bethlem Gallery from 13 April until 7 May 2011. This exhibition of photographic works is informed by a deep fascination with the poetic power of folds and textures. The materials, objects and voids in these images reveal and conceal; the apertures and folds invite the viewer to peer beyond the surface towards other forms and vistas, evoking doorways to the unconscious or passages to another world. Having previously pursued a successful career in fashion, life changes and different states of mind led Fradgley to leave this industry and pursue her passion for photography, which she has used as a cathartic tool, a vehicle for expression and a pathway to professional practice.

The artist explains: “This exhibition is a personal poem encompassing some of my feelings. I see objects and colours as metaphors for my life experience. Themes of slits, holes and folds appear in front of me, buzzing with energy, wishing I capture their existence as clues for inquiry to understanding myself.”

“My story began and continues with creases and scars, baggage and bondage. Sadness and solitude make way for rebirth and possibility. Recent research into the Victorian ‘strong clothing’, at the Bethlem Archive; along with my own thoughts around ‘constraints’ has led to the staged sepia images exploring feelings around freedom,” she explained.

‘Strong clothing’ was a rather euphemistic term used to describe certain forms of restraint used in late nineteenth century asylums. While chains, strait-jackets and similar garments were outlawed during the ‘non-restraint’ movement of the 1840s and ’50s, other methods of ‘mechanical restraint’ were permitted by the Commissioners in Lunacy (the government body who inspected and licensed asylums for much of the nineteenth century). “Strong dresses,” as described by Bethlem Superintendent George Savage in 1888, were “made of stout linen or woollen material, and lined throughout with flannel. The limbs are all free to move, but the hands are enclosed in the extremities of the dress, which are padded. … There are no straitwaistcoats, handcuffs, or what may be called true instruments of restraint in Bethlem.” Savage claimed that, by avoiding recourse to the use of sedatives or padded cells for violent or destructive patients, many “were thus really granted liberty by means of the slight restraint put upon them,” such as strong dresses and padded gloves. Others, however, did not agree, and the “principle of non-restraint” remained an ongoing matter of debate.

The exhibition opens on Wednesday 13 April, from 3 – 6pm, and continues until 7th May.

Open: Wednesday – Friday, and Saturday 16th April & 7th May, 11am – 6pm

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www.BethlemGallery.com