Posts Tagged 'Just Visiting'

Just Visiting: Flora Tristan

This is the last entry in the series we have entitled Just Visiting. Material from all the entries, and much more, are available in Colin Gale’s Illustrious Company: Authors, Artists and Other Adventurers in Bethlem Hospital. As a Christmas present to our readers, this already inexpensive e-book will be available to download free from Amazon UK from 20 to 25 December 2012.

Insanity was first dubbed ‘the English malady’ in 1736, in an anonymous account of a visit made to Bethlem during the years of unrestricted public visiting, the author opining that “the people of England are more subject to madness than any nation in the world”, having “no exalted notions of philosophy to support themselves under the various dispensations of providence, nor any regard to the fundamental rules of their own religion, which afford them the greatest comfort…”1

About one hundred years later, the French socialist and proto-feminist Flora Tristan revived this unflattering trope in Promenades dans Londres (published in English translation under the title Flora Tristan’s London Journal 1840).

‘It is generally accepted that England is the country with the greatest number of insane’, she wrote, and offered the following explanation: ‘It is also the home of the greatest excesses of every type and it is the country where free inquiry gives rise to the greatest number of religious and philosophical sects.’ ‘The more a people is inclined, by its religion and its philosophy, to resignation, the fewer madmen there are in its midst’, thought Tristan, ‘whereas those peoples who by reason govern their religious beliefs and their conduct in life are those among whom one finds the greatest number of insane’.2 What is common to these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century accounts is a horror of the rationalist, moralist and fissiparious character of English Protestant religiosity. In particular, Tristan’s perspective on England, never mind Bethlem, was that of a true outsider. What was true of her was true of others as well. Sometimes it takes a visitor to observe and draw attention to things that those who are being visited take for granted, or do not even see.

One other aspect of Flora Tristan’s visit to Bethlem, as she described it in her journal, is worthy of note: a conversation which led to an intense encounter with a patient whose name and background closely mirrored that of a one-time suitor of hers, a ship’s captain who had, she said, ‘loved me with such purity and such devotion’ but who (she hitherto thought) had lost his life at sea:

‘We have one of your compatriots here; his madness is unusual, he thinks he is God…He used to be a seaman, has seen the world, speaks all the languages and seems to have been a man of excellent capacities.’

‘What is his name?’


‘Chabrié!!..I cannot describe the effect produced upon me by that name; I could not ascertain exactly what I felt. Joy? Pain? Surprise? Anxiety?…I was impatient for the meeting; it was as if God had inspired me with the idea of coming to London in order to save the unfortunate Chabrié!’

‘…the hospital’s officer pointed out a man sitting alone on a bench…It was not the captain of the Mexicain…It occurred to me that the French name had been improperly pronounced; I asked the officer to write it out for me, and I saw that the name I had been given was pronounced the same, but spelled with an r at the end.’

‘’Oh! Mademoiselle, how pleased I am to encounter at last a compatriot! a woman! We speak the same language and I can convey to you my suffering! I can tell you of all the pain which afflicts me in this asylum of misery, where I am shut up by the most odious of injustices…it is God who has brought you here to this place of desolation, not to save me, for I must perish here, but to save the idea which I have come to bring to the world!’

Tristan’s meeting with Chabrier ended inconclusively with her wondering ‘Is that man really mad? Everything he said to me is indicative of a man whose head is filled with social, political and religious ideas and whose heart is overflowing with love of his fellow creature. … Jesus, Saint-Simon, Fourier had all spoken in the same way.’ Inconclusive it may have been, but it was a true meeting between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’; in Tristan’s words, ‘one of those bizarre, extraordinary encounters which, I believe, happen only to me.’

1 Anon., Letters from a Moor at London to His Friend at Tunis. Containing An Account of his Journey Through England… Remarks on the Public Charities…A description of BEDLAM, with Serious Reflections on Love, Madness, and Self-Murder…, London: Printed for J. Batley, J. Wood & Richard Wellington, 1736, p. 56.

2 D. Palmer and G. Pincetl (trans.), Flora Tristan’s London Journal (George Prior, London, 1980), pp. 159-160.

Flora Tristan

Flora Tristan (1803 – 1844)


Just Visiting: Robert Bulwer-Lytton

Edward O’Donoghue, Bethlem’s chaplain and amateur chronicler from 1892 to 1930, compiled his own list of famous visitors to the Hospital and published it in the in-house magazine Under the Dome in 1898:

“Among the signatures in our Visitors’ Books are those of the Princess Narés of Samoa; of Alfonso de Bourbon, Prince of the Asturias (son of Queen Isabella II of Spain); of General Negrete, and the family of the President of Slavador (Central America); of Robert Browning, Robert Bulwer Lytton, Lewis Wingfield, and Bellew; of George, Duke of Cambridge, Princess Frederica of Hanover, and Prince Salm-Salm’ of doctors and MPs innumerable; of Olga de Novikoff…and of the Ambassador of Austria-Hungary.”

Here is evidence, if evidence were needed, of what we called last month “the lively cultural and intellectual exchange” of ideas and practice about nineteenth-century psychiatry. (Further examples are available in the online resource European Journeys). Here, too, is an indication of just how long Just Visiting could run if we let it. In point of fact, it is shortly to be brought to a conclusion – we cannot do justice to all those mentioned by O’Donoghue. One name that stands out in his list, however, is that of Robert Bulwer-Lytton (1831-1891), son of aristocrats Edward and Rosina Bulwer-Lytton, and father to Victor Bulwer-Lytton. It is fair to say of the Victorian-era Bulwer-Lytton family that it had its share of high-profile troubles. These have been recounted in a chapter of Inconvenient People (a new book by Sarah Wise, which we hope shortly to review for this blog). But in a biography of Edward published one hundred years ago, Victor Bulwer-Lytton ventures to say of his novelist grandmother Rosina’s intellect that it was “too much disordered for liberty, and not sufficiently disordered for Bedlam”.1 The principal evidence of this ‘disorder’ comprised the decades of vituperative scorn she poured upon her husband (whom she dubbed ‘Sir Liar’) in print and in public following their separation in 1836.

In 1858 Edward arranged for her to be committed to a private asylum (not Bethlem), but she was released within three weeks, the medical certificates upon which the admission was based having been overturned. The eventual result of this fresh grievance was the publication (in 1880, seven years after Edward’s death) of an account of her misfortunes, entitled A Blighted Life. “To the tale of her sufferings, real and imaginary, was henceforth added the chapter of her kidnapping and forcible incarceration in a lunatic asylum”, wrote Victor, perhaps not entirely sympathetically, in 1913. “In the eyes of those who heard only her version of the facts, her husband became a greater fiend than ever, and between these implacable foes no truce was ever called on this side of the grave.”2

One can only guess at the effect a visit to Bethlem may have had on Robert Bulwer-Lytton, who had been estranged from his mother from the age of seven, and had most dealings with her in the strained months immediately surrounding her three-week incarceration, after which they never met again.3 His was an impossible situation. In A Blighted Life Rosina exonerates him from direct involvement in what she saw as a plot to silence her, yet faults him for not standing up to his father, and wonders at “the mystery of iniquity about [Edward’s] unhallowed power over his truly unfortunate Son”.4 Hearing later that Robert’s engagement to be married had been broken off, and that he was in “deep misery”, Rosina wrote him a letter “which, if he had had a heart of stone, provided it were only in the shape of a heart! and a conscience, even if no bigger than a midje’s egg [sic], he would have answered! But” she wrote plaintively in A Blighted Life, “he never has”.5 Here is an open window onto the aching trauma of family breakdown.

1 Victor Bulwer-Lytton, The Life of Edward Bulwer, First Lord Lytton (London, 1913), p. 278.

2 ibid., p. 279.

3 ibid., p. 279; Marie Mulvey Roberts, ‘Introduction’ to Rosina Bulwer-Lytton, A Blighted Life: A True Story (Thoemmes, 1994), p. xvii.

4 R. Bulwer-Lytton, A Blighted Life, pp. 47-49.

5 ibid., p. 74.

Robert Bulwer Lytton

Just Visiting: Fukuzawa Yukichi

Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901) is well-known within Japan as an author, political theorist, and moderniser, the founder of Keio University and, in a manner of speaking, one of the architects of the modern nation. He was an advocate of political and cultural engagement with the West, and some account of his travels to Europe and the United States is available in English translation in The Autobiography of Fukuzawa Yukichi, translated by Eiichi Kiyooka (Tokyo, 1981). His diaries, however, remain untranslated, and in them there is an account of a visit made to Bethlem Hospital in 1862 – a fact that may be verified from Bethlem’s visitors’ book, into which Fukuzawa wrote. Fukuzawa was by no means the only personage from abroad to visit the Hospital – nineteenth century psychiatrists maintained a lively cultural and intellectual exchange across national borders – but his Western hosts no doubt saw him as one of their more exotic guests. His own account of the visit, written on 20 May 1862, breathes a liberal, enquiring spirit, and provides another window onto mid-Victorian Hospital life.

“This lunatic asylum is a hospital that accommodates and treats lunatic people. It provides a single room for each patient. Patients are encouraged to come out of their rooms during the daytime. I saw patients who took walks through the hospital, went out into the garden to pick flowers, sang and danced on the rooftop, played ball, drew pictures, and enjoyed music. Patients can amuse themselves according to their inclination. The inside of the hospital is kept especially clean. Bird cages and pot plants are put in place so that patients can soothe their minds.”

Fukuzawa then turned his attention to Bethlem’s State Criminal Lunatic Asylum, within which those who (like Edward Oxford) had been tried for but acquitted of serious crimes ‘by reason of insanity’ were held until Her Majesty’s further Pleasure be known.

“The hospital not only treats patients who go mad but also detains for life people who have committed arson or attempted murder due to their madness. I saw three inmates today. One tried to kill the Queen, one killed his father, and another woman killed her three children.”

The would-be regicide was doubtless Edward Oxford himself, and the parricide Richard Dadd. A little over two years after Fukuzawa’s visit, both men – indeed all the male inhabitants of the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum – were relocated to the newly-built Broadmoor Hospital. Three years after that, Oxford proved an exception to the life detention rule, as related by Fukuzawa, by obtaining a Royal pardon. But that, as they say, is another story – one, incidentally, that is told by Paul Murphy in a book just published by Pegasus entitled Shooting Victoria.

Fukuzawa Yukichi

Fukuzawa Yukichi in Paris, 1862

Just Visiting: Henry Morley

If Charlotte Brontë did visit Bethlem, as she anticipated, in 1853, what would she have seen there? It is impossible to say for certain, since no account of her visit survives. But a sense of the Hospital’s environs is given in an account written just four years later by a lesser literary figure of the Victorian era, Henry Morley.

In 1857 Morley was commissioned by his friend Charles Dickens to write an account of a visit to Bethlem for Household Words, Dickens himself having reported on a visit to Bethlem’s rival St Luke’s Hospital in 1852. Morley’s account is of an institution transformed in the early 1850s by the appointment of Bethlem’s first Resident Physician.

“We went over the hospital a week or two ago,” he wrote. “Within the entrance gates, as we went round the lawn towards the building, glancing aside, we saw several groups of patients quietly sunning themselves in the garden, some playing on a grass-plot with two or three happy little children. We found afterwards that these were the children of the Resident Physician and Superintendent, Dr. Hood. They are trusted freely among the patients, and the patients take great pleasure in their presence among them. The sufferers feel that surely they are not cut off from fellowship with man, not objects of a harsh distrust, when even little children come to play with them, and prattle confidently in their ears. There are no chains nor strait waistcoats now in Bethlehem; yet, upon the staircase of a ward occupied by men the greater number of whom would, in the old time, have been beheld by strong-nerved adults with a shudder, there stood a noble little boy, another fragment of the Resident Physician’s family, with a bright smile upon his face, who looked like an embodiment of the good spirit that had found its way into the hospital, and chased out all the gloom.”

Morley’s conclusion, after a review of Bethlem’s chequered history? That “thousands of middle class homes contain nothing so pretty as a ward in Bedlam” and that “as to all the small comforts of life, patients in Bethlehem are as much at liberty to make provision for themselves as they would be at home”.1

1 H Morley, ‘The Star of Bethlehem’, Household Words, 15 August 1857.

Henry Morley

Henry Morley, c. 1888

Just Visiting: Charlotte Bronte (2 of 2)

(continued from previous post )

Lesley Krueger continues:

How to find out whether Charlotte Brontë toured Bethlem? I’m a novelist, far from a Brontë scholar, and this was a little part-time quest. I decided to start at the Bethlem Hospital archives, which I visited last November to research my new novel. Archivist Colin Gale told me he had never seen a reference to a visit by Brontë in any of the archival material, but kindly checked the 1853 visitor’s book—and drew a blank. No Charlotte Brontë, no John Forbes, no “Currer Bell:” Brontë’s pen name. But there were precious few other names that year, either. The book seems to have been neglected in 1853, and it was impossible to take the absence of Brontë’s name as proof she’d never stepped inside.

Back home in Toronto, it occurred to me that while Charlotte Brontë may not have written about her visit to Bethlem, perhaps Forbes did. Dr. Robin A.L. Agnew is the author of a short biography of the doctor, who was knighted in 1853.1 The Brontës aren’t mentioned, but in his footnotes Agnew refers to a collection of Forbes’s unpublished personal papers held by descendants in Australia. I assumed that someone in the Forbes family would have noticed the name “Charlotte Brontë” years ago, but couldn’t help wondering if Forbes had made a reference to Bethlem in early 1853 obscure enough that its significance had been missed. “On a visit to Bethlem with a friend …?”

Robin Agnew proved to be both helpful and gracious. Emailing from England, he confirmed that he had never seen the Brontë name in any Forbes papers, but he put me in touch with David Forbes, a surgeon in Australia who is a direct descendent of the Victorian physician. With equal kindness, the Australian Forbes dashed my hopes. Not only is there no mention of Charlotte Brontë in the papers, there is nothing about Bethlem. No joy, either, from other Forbes papers held by the University of Aberdeen, despite the long-distance help of deputy archivist Andrew MacGregor.

That left me with one other obvious avenue: Brontë’s publisher, George Smith, with whom she stayed during her visit to London. George Smith, A Memoir With Some Pages of Autobiography, was privately published in 1902 by his widow, Elizabeth Smith.2 It contains several articles Smith published in The Cornhill Magazine in 1900, including a memoir of Charlotte Brontë written almost fifty years after he had last seen her. Smith was 76 years old at the time and would die less than a year later, but his biography makes it clear that he was sharp until the end, and I had seen respectful references to the memoir in most authoritative Brontë biographies.3

In Smith’s affectionate portrait of the author, I finally found my reference, obviously known to biographers but going maddeningly unquoted in their published works.

“Charlotte Brontë stayed with us several times,” Smith writes. “The utmost was, of course, done to entertain and please her. We arranged for dinner-parties, at which artistic and literary notabilities, whom she wished to meet, were present. We took her to places which we thought would interest her—the ‘Times’ office, the General Post Office, the Bank of England, Newgate, Bedlam.”

Bedlam. So there we are.

Or are we? Someone’s memory fifty years after the fact can’t entirely be trusted. Yet Smith is convincing, providing details that ring true. “One thing that which impressed her very much,” he notes, “was the lighted rooms of the newspaper offices in Fleet Street and the Strand, as we drove home in the middle of the night from some City expedition.”

“At Newgate,” he says, in an anecdote often quoted, “she rapidly fixed her attention on an individual prisoner. This was a poor girl with an interesting face, and an expression of the deepest misery. She had, I believe, killed her illegitimate child. Miss Brontë walked up to her, took her hand, and began to talk to her. She was, of course, quickly interrupted by the prison warder with the formula, ‘Visitors are not allowed to speak to the prisoners.’”

I think Charlotte Brontë probably paid her visit to Bethlem, and I would be delighted if anyone could tell me definitively with whom. Smith never names the “we” who took her. Smith and Forbes? Forbes alone, at Smith’s behest? Perhaps the latter, since Smith provides no eye-witness description of the author’s reaction to the hospital, or repeats anything she said. Of course, that was my original hope in trying to track the visit down, and despite some further checking, I remain disappointed. It would have been wonderful to see the asylum through Charlotte Brontë’s eyes. But that is where fiction can come in, and maybe where it will—since, Reader, I am writing a novel.

Lesley Krueger’s last novel was The Corner Garden from Penguin Books. Her new novel, The Resident Thief, will be published in 2013.

1 The Life of Sir John Forbes (1787-1861) by Dr. Robin A.L. Agnew, StewART Anthill, 2009.

2 Now available online through the Open Library.

3 Prince of Publishers: A Biography of the Great Victorian Publisher George Smith, by Jenifer Glynn, Allison and Busby, London and New York, 1986.

Just Visiting: Charlotte Bronte (1 of 2)

This month’s post (and another one to be published in July) on Charlotte Brontë in the Just Visiting series is written by our guest blogger, the Canadian author Lesley Krueger.

My small quest began with a plan mentioned in one of Charlotte Brontë’s letters, written on January 19, 1853 while she was on a visit to London from her home in Haworth, Yorkshire. “Being allowed to have my own choice of sights this time—I selected the real rather than the decorative side of Life—I have been over two prisons ancient & modern—Newgate and Pentonville—also the Bank, the Exchange ‘the Foundling Hospital,’—and to-day if all be well, I go with Dr. Forbes to see Bethlehem Hospital.”1

Did Charlotte Brontë actually go to Bethlem? I scribbled a note at the time to check whether the visit came off, little knowing how crooked a trail I would walk before satisfying myself—more or less—of the answer.

It’s such a tiny detail, of little importance to most of the biographers who have excavated the life of Charlotte Brontë from her birth in 1816 through her authorship of Jane Eyre to her death in 1855, about two years after the planned visit. Most of those who mention her January sightseeing tour skim over the details while using it to speculate about Brontë’s psychology and perhaps her intentions. Did she plan to write one of the social-issue novels so popular at the time? Was she drawn to prisons and hospitals for the insane because of the mental and physical breakdown of her brother, Branwell Brontë, before his death in 1848?

My focus was different. I had dipped into Margaret Smith’s magisterial three-volume compilation of Charlotte Brontë’s letters while starting research on my fifth novel, ranging over mid-nineteenth century sources to get a feel for the texture of the period. I knew that my novel would be centred on a notorious member of my husband’s family who was incarcerated in the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum at the Bethlem Royal Hospital during the 1840s and 50s. Drawn up short by reading that Brontë might have visited Bethlem at the time, I wanted to confirm the visit and, more important, discover whether she had left any record of her impressions of the hospital and its inmates.

I quickly found that there is no further reference to Bethlem in any known Brontë letter, and the many biographers whose books I consulted wrote that the visit had come off without saying how they had confirmed this. In a footnote, Margaret Smith writes that on January 28, Brontë presented a copy of her new novel, Villette, to Dr. John Forbes, the physician who was supposed to take her to the hospital, inscribing it personally “in acknowledgment of kindness.”2 This could be taken as confirming the visit, but I wondered if it was enough.

Forbes was a distinguished lung specialist, a friend of Brontë’s publisher George Smith and a former schoolmate of Smith’s father in Scotland. In 1849, at Smith’s suggestion, Brontë had consulted Forbes about the care of her sister, Anne Brontë, who was dying of tuberculosis. It seemed possible that the visit to Bethlem had not come off, but that Brontë wished to thank Forbes for agreeing to take her, and for his help with Anne. After all, she signed books on January 28 for several friends and acquaintances.

Why was I sceptical? Brontë was often ill and painfully shy, and it was common for her to cancel visits. In her biography, Elizabeth Gaskell records a rather charming incident during a visit Brontë made to her house in Manchester in April, 1853.

“One evening we had, among other guests, two sisters who sang Scottish ballads exquisitely. Miss Brontë had been sitting quiet and constrained till they began “The Bonnie House of Airlie,” but the effect of that and “Carlisle Yetts,” which followed, was as irresistible as the playing of the Piper of Hamelin. The beautiful clear light came into her eyes; her lips quivered with emotion; she forgot herself, rose, and crossed the room to the piano, where she asked eagerly for song after song. The sisters begged her to come and see them the next morning, when they would sing as long as ever she liked; and she promised gladly and thankfully. But on reaching the house her courage failed. We walked some time up and down the street; she upbraiding herself all the while for folly, and trying to dwell on the sweet echoes in her memory rather than on the thought of a third sister who would have to be faced if we went in. But it was of no use; and dreading lest this struggle with herself might bring on one of her trying headaches, I entered at last and made the best apology I could for her non-appearance.”3

A woman so highly strung, burdened with memories of her brother’s breakdown and facing the daunting edifice of Bethlem, might just as easily have paced up and down outside, got back in the carriage and asked to be driven home.

( to be continued )

1 From The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, volume 3, 1852-1855, edited by Margaret Smith, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2004. p. 108.

2 ibid. p. 109.

3 The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell, Smith, Elder and Co., London, 1874 edition. p. 416.

Just Visiting 2: Samuel Beckett

Next Monday (19 March 2012), the Archivist will give a Gresham lecture at the Museum of London on the subject of unrestricted public visiting to Bethlem, a phenomenon which effectively ceased in 1770. In contrast, this series of blog posts will concentrate on visitors to the Hospital from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Having profiled Queen Mary in January, this month we feature the Nobel Prize-winning author Samuel Beckett, who drew inspiration from visits he made to Bethlem in the composition of his first novel, Murphy (1938).

A friend of his, Dr Geoffrey Thompson, was Bethlem’s Junior House Physician from February 1935, and Acting Senior House Physician from May of the same year, until his resignation that October. “This gave Beckett the chance to come to Bethlem, where he walked in the grounds, visited the wards and played chess with Dr Thompson”, according to the author of a published history of the Hospital. “Beckett himself acknowledged that he used Bethlem as a point of departure for his novel Murphy, which had as its setting a sanatorium for the mentally ill, called the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat”.1

An acknowledged point of departure is one thing; a recoverable string of point-by-point correspondences between Bethlem and Beckett’s Mercyseat is quite another. It has been said that “the novelist destroys the house of his life and uses its stones to build the house of his novel” and that “a novelist’s biographers thus undo what a novelist has done, and redo what he undid” but “all their labour cannot illuminate either the value or the meaning of a novel, can scarcely even identify a few of the bricks”.2

Attempts at tracing the sources of Beckett’s inspiration have been made nonetheless, most notably in Chris Ackerley’s Demented Particulars: The Annotated Murphy (Edinburgh, 2004), in which identifications of varying degrees of plausibility are advanced: between ‘Dr Killiecrankie’ and Murdo Mackenzie, Bethlem’s Senior Assistant Physician, between Beckett’s county coroner and John Porter-Phillips, the Physician Superintendent, and between ‘Bim Clinch’ and Kenneth Cantle, deputy chief male attendant at the time of Beckett’s visits.

To these proposals we venture to add our own simple suggestion: that criticism should accord ample space to Samuel Becket’s storytelling powers, not to mention his caustic wit. Reading that no female nurse at the Mercyseat ‘had taken a male nurse to husband within living memory, though one had once been almost obliged to’,3 for example, is not meant to send us scurrying to Bethlem’s staff records looking for real-life scandal. It is meant to make us laugh, while simultaneously discomforting us.

1 David Russell, Scenes from Bedlam (London, 1997), pp. 142-143.
2 M. Kundera, The Art of the Novel (1986).
3 Samuel Beckett, Murphy (Calder, 1993), p. 93.