Posts Tagged 'His Powers of Walking'

The Unbroken Seal

Within the pages of Bethlem’s Victorian medical casebooks a large number of letters are preserved – letters to, from and about many of its patients. These letters offer multiple perspectives on the experiences of patients that would be inaccessible from a reading of the hospital’s casenotes alone. They bring the personal dimensions of clinical encounters to the fore. A good example of this is the letters which formed the basis for our recent thread entitled His Powers of Walking.

There is another layer of poignancy attaching to these letters, which arises from the very fact of their preservation in Bethlem’s casebooks. The presence of incoming letters from friends, family, doctors and employers within these pages is unremarkable. The books were simply being used as a filing system. But what of correspondence that was written by patients and addressed to friends and family? The presence of letters such as these in the casebooks testifies to the Hospital’s practice of reading all outgoing letters and deciding which could (and which could not) be sent. The only letters that were not vulnerable to interception were those addressed to the Commissioners in Lunacy (the regulator of the day, to whom all certified patients had a right of appeal against their detention). Put simply, we may presume from the presence of letters written by patients within their Bethlem medical records that in Victorian times an unknown proportion of patients’ letters – whether tender, hurt, confused or threatening in tone – never reached their intended destinations. Such letters may give the researchers of today a measure of access to patients’ voices, but they do so by virtue of a practice which consciously limited the range of their audience at the time of writing.

The piquancy of a recent chance discovery by a visiting researcher is so intense as to be tantalising. Sitting within one of Bethlem’s late Victorian casebooks is a sealed envelope marked ‘confidential’, around which coloured string has been delicately tied. This envelope appears to have been addressed by a female patient to a non-conformist minister of her acquaintance, to whom (it is reported in her medical record) she had previously sent letters of considerable length and amorous intent. In common with other letters written by patients contained in Bethlem’s Victorian casebooks, this envelope was never delivered; but unusually (uniquely, we think, within Bethlem’s holdings) it remains sealed. What confidences are locked inside it? Whatever motives the hospital authorities of the day had in stopping this letter, yet making an exception to their usual rule by not breaking its seal, our researcher did not think that opening the letter was any business of hers. Nor do we really consider it to be any part of ours. Readers familiar with A.S. Byatt’s Possession may recall the (contrived) set of circumstances in which a sealed envelope from a previous century was opened, supplying the novel with an appropriately dramatic conclusion; but only, it will be remembered, by a descendant of the correspondent with the closest and (as it turned out) the most legitimate of interests in its contents.



His Powers of Walking IV

A chance discovery in the archives has prompted us to add a short coda to the series of posts we published about Robert Cowtan last autumn, material from which has been reworked by the author Aislinn Hunter to form the preface to Illustrious Company. While a patient at Bethlem’s countryside convalescent establishment Witley House, Cowtan walked six or seven miles, maybe more, to pay an unsolicited visit on Alfred, Lord Tennyson in the late 1870s. It will be remembered that for patients transferred to Witley, the associated prospect of imminent discharge from the Hospital, as well as the rural charm and relaxed treatment regime intrinsic to it, made it a longed-for destination among many of the Hospital’s residents. Cowtan was among this number, and was discharged recovered from Bethlem Hospital in 1878 after a stay of nearly a year. After a period of remission, he returned to stay another year in 1880, eventually being discharged relieved (better, in other words, though not entirely well). Thereafter his name disappears entirely from Bethlem’s record – or so we thought until recently.

Consulting a slim volume of late Victorian voluntary admissions to the Hospital, we recently happened across the details of a middle-aged woman by the name of Jessie Mary Cowtan. Jessie spent four months of 1893 in Bethlem, three of those at Witley, before being discharged recovered. Her notes reveal that her father had been “insane for many years”, from which we may deduce that matters did not improve for Robert Cowtan after his departure from Bethlem. In a letter of thanks to the Physician Superintendent preserved in her records (photographed below), Jessie writes movingly of “beautiful Witley”, presumably unconscious of the pleasure her father once derived from precisely the same surroundings.


His Powers of Walking III

Author and guest blogger Aislinn Hunter continues on from an earlier post.

The walk from Witley to Aldworth was, if our real-life Cowtan went directly, probably about six and a half miles or thirteen miles round trip. Depending on the route and Cowtan’s intentions this could easily have been a much longer trek. Add Cowtan’s age to that and it seems his belief in his great powers of walking were justified. As to his intentions we can only guess. Did Cowtan happen upon Aldworth or did he go there knowing it was the home of one of the era’s greatest poets? Cowtan, as previously mentioned, was a British Museum librarian and author who wrote a number of books on the Museum and its people (‘Memories of the British Museum’ and ‘A Biographical Sketch of Sir Anthony Panizzi’) before his admission to Bethlem. He was also the author of ‘The Autobiography of a “Man of Kent”’ a first-hand account of his life from 1817-1865; an account that references Tennyson twice – a sure sign that Tennyson and his work were on Cowtan’s radar.

What amazes me most about Cowtan’s casebook records is the very hazy line between statements of potential fact and ones of potential fiction. One of the signs of Cowtan’s dissociated state is that he claims to have been personally acquainted with the Queen – a completely incredulous idea if one presumes they are reading the casebook of an ordinary citizen – but one not as far-fetched when we discover that Cowtan was very well acquainted with a Mr Williams who was the ‘Librarian in Ordinary to Her Majesty Queen Victoria’ – a man he describes (in ‘Memories of the British Museum’) handling the precious volumes in the Royal Library – a description that places Cowtan there. Indeed, the records that do come up around Cowtan when one starts digging show him to have been a regular correspondent with dozens of important figures in the day (including Charles Dickens who was a ‘subscriber’ of Cowtan’s autobiography and who wrote to Cowtan at least once in 1867). A good number of these correspondences might have been related to Cowtan’s work at the library, or they may have been related to what appears to be a penchant for autographs – regardless, the letters demonstrate that Cowtan had access to, and interactions with, literary and societal circles that wielded significant influence in his day. This is not to say that Cowtan didn’t have a breakdown or suffer profoundly from the overwork his casebook describes, it’s simply to say that his story, like all patient’s stories, is far more nuanced than it might first appear.

I have always been obsessed with lost histories. It is one of the reasons I write and a theme that runs through my first five books and my current novel-in-progress. In finding Robert Cowtan I felt like I enacted what my fictional archivist Jane is seeking to do: give the dead back their stories. That afternoon ten weeks ago in the small back room of Bethlem’s archives was a pivotal one for me as a writer and as a human being. I felt in a small way like I’d re-tied a rope or knit some of the strands of one man’s life back together. A small thing perhaps, but part of what I, as a writer, hope to do: create resonance, take what those who came before us have done, and who they’ve been, and stitch some evidence of their lives back into the larger human story.

Aislinn Hunter is the author of two books of poetry, two works of fiction and a book of lyric essays. Her first novel Stay is due to begin filming in Ireland in the spring. A novel entitled And Then It Will Be Us is nearing completion.

His Powers of Walking II

Author and guest blogger Aislinn Hunter takes up at the point left off in a previous post.

In 2004 I had the privilege of being the writer-in-residence in the Creative Writing department at The University of Lancaster. I was in the early writing stages of a novel set in a contemporary London museum and featuring an archivist named Jane. One day, on a city bus, I was reading through an anthology of letters I’d picked up at a charity shop. There, in the middle of missives from Lord Byron, Charles Darwin, Queen Victoria and the like was a short letter from Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson to the Governor of Witley Asylum, it read:

Mr. Alfred Tennyson presents his compliments to the Governor of Witley Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics, and requests him to be so kind as to take precautions that his patients should not pay visits at Aldworth, as two did yesterday (one describing himself as an assistant librarian of the British Museum). Mr. Tennyson is very glad if they in any way enjoy’d themselves here, and hopes they did not suffer from their long walk. 1

I remember putting the book down and picturing the whole encounter. This is how it works sometimes with novel writing: a story presents itself so clearly and fully that all of a sudden there are full-blown characters tramping through the woods of your imagination, and all you can do is follow them as they head up a path to knock on a great man’s door.

Over the years as the novel has progressed I’ve taken some liberties with the letter. I’ve replaced Tennyson as the letter writer with another (imagined) great man (a Victorian plant hunter) and moved the setting north towards Lancashire. But the letter itself and the long walk made by patients at a convalescent home for lunatics remains. This September, with support from Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Canada where I teach creative writing, I spent some time in the locations where my novel is set and visited the Bethlem archives to get a better understanding of both the world my asylum characters would have inhabited and the kinds of archives my fictional archivist might be dealing with. Towards the end of the day, reading through Bethlem’s 1877 men’s casebook (because that is the year the novel is set) I happened across the record of a librarian named Robert Cowtan, a man who had been to Witley and who, according to the casebook, had a great belief in his powers of walking. I was stunned to find him, the man whose real-life escapade formed the basis of a novel I’ve been working on for seven years. In a strange way I felt like a story I’d made up in my head had flown out of my imagination and snuck back into the past to become real. The character I’ve written (called ‘Leeson’), the one who takes the long walk to a great man’s estate, has been with me a very long time. Discovering the actual man my real-seeming character was based on was, in a surreal way, a bit like finding him.

[to be continued]

1 Cecil Y. Lang and Edgar F. Shannon Jr (eds), The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson, volume 1 (Oxford, 1982), p. xxx, cited in Felix Pryor, The Faber Book of Letters: letters written in the English language 1578-1939 (London, 1988).

His Powers of Walking I

Regular readers will know that this year we have been blogging about patients of the past who have had their moment In the Spotlight of ‘fame’; and that from time to time we have drawn attention to others, such as Walter Abraham Haigh, whose names are unknown to posterity but whose stories are exceptional. Our recent blog thread of First Person Narratives provides evidence that this is an ongoing phenomenon. One of our aims in highlighting stories like these is to pay homage to the individual quiddity of all Bethlem’s patients, even though not every story can be told.

The Canadian author and researcher Aislinn Hunter has just drawn our attention to another such story, that of Robert Cowtan, a librarian at the British Museum admitted to Bethlem at the age of 60 in 1877 in a manic state brought on, as recorded in the admission register, by overwork. In Hospital Cowtan proved a prodigious letter-writer, addressing himself to the Lunacy Commissioners (who had the duty of inspecting asylums and hearing patient appeals), fellow patients (one of whom appeared to have become the object of his unrequited affection) and outside friends alike.

Like a great number of patients admitted between 1870 and 1929 who showed signs of improvement, Cowtan was temporarily transferred to Bethlem’s convalescent unit in Witley near Godalming, Surrey. The daily regime of this unit was mild and its environs pleasant, affording opportunities for escorted rural walks, for example, but the chief attraction of transfer to Witley was the associated prospect of departure from Bethlem after a month in the country.

Unusually, however, Cowtan stayed only eleven days at Witley, and rather than being discharged recovered upon his return to the Bethlem’s main site in Southwark, he was transferred to the ward in the Hospital reserved for those with the most challenging behaviour. All that appears in his medical record between the note of his transfer to Witley and his return is the cryptic line ‘Has great belief of his powers of walking’. In the event, Cowtan left the hospital in what the hospital considered to be a fit mental state a full eleven months after his abortive stay at Witley.

What, if anything, took place while Cowtan was at Witley? We are delighted to say that Aislinn Hunter has agreed to take up the story from here.

[to be continued]