Canadian Literature Greg Hollingshead Bedlam

ISBN 13: 9780002005579


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9780002005579: Bedlam

Bedlam, Greg Hollingshead’s new novel, tells a dramatic and compelling story of three ordinary people caught up in the turmoil of the late-18th century, their lives inexorably intertwined in a world where nothing is as it seems.

Europe, reeling from the French Revolution, is about explode. Conspiracies, plots and paranoia sweep across the country, landing James Tilly Matthews in Bethlem Hospital, a notorious, crumbling home for the insane. Although he is delusional convinced that a gang of villains is controlling unsuspecting minds by means of a diabolical machine called an “Air Loom” 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 famous patient, becomes another puppet in a game governed by shifting rules and shadowy players.

Bedlam creates an indelible portrait of 18th-century London, a city teetering between darkness and light, struggling to find its way to a more just and humane future. In its darkest corners, where noblemen, pickpockets, royalists and republicans jostle one another, where corruption is all in a day’s work, Matthews, Margaret and Haslam must contrive their own destinies.

Enlivened with wit and intellectual daring, Bedlam is a novel that pulses with insight and compassion, in which imagination bridges the chasm between fantasy and reality, love and hate.

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About the Author:

GREG HOLLINGSHEAD has won the Governor General’s Award forFiction for his collection The Roaring Girl and the Rogers Writers’Trust Fiction Prize for The Healer. His work has been shortlisted for allmajor fiction awards in Canada, and his most recent novel, Bedlam, wasshortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book (Caribbean andCanada). He lives in Edmonton.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One 
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.
“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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