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on 29 May 2010
This has been hovering on my radar for a while and on my wishlist for months, so when I spotted it in the library I had to pick it up. It's a terrifying book but I am so glad to have read it. As the title suggests, it is predominantly a history of the Bethlehem asylum in London, soon contracted to 'Bedlam' in local slang and quickly fixing the term in our language as a byword for chaos.

Bedlam's history is a horrifying tale swimming with chains and straitjackets, ice baths and purging, bleeding and starvation, mania and despair. Arnold draws the reader through the years from Bedlam's conception, into different locations and grand buildings, through the reigns of monarch after monarch. Doctors and superintendents come and go, treatments fluctuate and metamorphose, knowledge grows and changes for the better... eventually. Through the sweep of Bedlam's history, Arnold has included the stories of some of the saddest, quirkiest and most notorious patients to haunt its cells, as well as extending her research to offer the reader a wider historical context and a broader look at the treatment of madness across the country. There is also an interesting chapter on mad women as a cultural construct, including a look at Miss Havisham and Bertha Mason as literary representations of contemporary stereotypes.

As a manic depressive, all I can say is, thank heavens I'm not living my life any time but now. Right up the mid-20th century, people suffering from mental illness have been 'treated' with a host of remedies from the ridiculous to the barbaric to, just occasionally, the hopeful and enlightened. I found this book by turns sad, wry, mind-boggling, thoughtful and plain horrific. I feel like I've come away from it having been educated and enlightened, not to mention harbouring a profound feeling of gratefulness that today's medicine has, for the most part, finally rejected the attitudes and approaches to mental illness that made elements of this book so painful to read. Highly recommended!
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on 16 November 2011
This disturbing and gripping book delves into the history of Bedlam. A place which has given it's very name to the dictionaries as meaning noisy and confused. The book follows the hospital's history from it's beginning as the Bethlehem hospital in 1247 to the relocation in the suburbs of Kent . A truly fascinating look at the early care of the mentally ill patient.
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on 18 April 2011
A very readable book. However, I got the sense the author really rushed the last chapter and didnt really explain why the hospital moved to Kent in the early 20th century. Instead this last chapter was a rather rambling account of the author's opinion on modern psychiatric medicine. Also there were a couple of historical inaccuracies. An example of this is when the author talks about Moss Side Military Hospital. The author makes the error of assuming this hospital was located in Moss Side in Manchester. This is incorrect, Moss Side Hospital was located at Moss Side in Maghull which is just outside of Liverpool. This makes the reader wonder what else is incorrect in the book? However, a very entertaining read with great use of illustrations.
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on 4 January 2011
The book does have a large ambition as other reviewers have stated. It was a very interesting novel though I found Necropolis by the author a much more interesting read and put together in a more interesting way. My main difficulty with this text was perhaps that the cases referred to on the back cover were covered in no real depth in the text itself. There were brief references to individual cases and miscarriages of justice and more detail spent on the doctors that governed the institution itself as well as the architecture of the different locations for Bedlam.

For those interested in the history of this period it is a good read, even with the context of the book in the details surrounding Bedlam at this time.
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on 21 May 2012
I've sent this back for a refund as it's missing the images from the printed version. Where an image should appear, the words "Image Not Available" appear.

As far as the content goes, I found the book (what I read of it before getting annoyed by the lack of images)quite readable, but with too many "might haves" in it. For example, Shakespeare "may have" been inspired by a visit to Bedlam. Anne Boleyn "may well have" taken a walk in the grounds. It's all pure speculation, and while I understand it's an attempt to contextualise the time frames being written about, I found this unfounded guesswork quite irritating.

Anyway, like I said, my main issue is specifically with the Kindle edition. It's more expensive than the print edition, yet is missing all of the images. It might seem like a minor fault, but this should be pointed out before people buy the product. Frankly, I refuse to pay more for less.
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on 14 May 2012
An excellent book, I bought it second hand the book came in band new condition which is also awesome. I would definitely recommend this book to any history buffs out there. Very informative without being too dense.
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on 28 June 2012
I found this a thoughtful history of the treatment of those considered mad by society. It was given structure by focusing on London and its most famous asylum.
It did a grand job of packing a lot into a relatively small volume. We read about social norms, politics, philosophy and medicine and how each impacted on the work of the asylum. Of course the case histories of some of the inmates are the most moving and informative parts of the book, but the author manages not to sensationalise or sentimentalise them.
She is also not too judgemental about the past treatments of residents. Each era is set in the context of attitudes and medical practice of the time.The last chapter could have said more, as sadly mental health services are not in a state of improvement, but maybe this was outside the remit of this particular book.
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on 4 February 2016
I've never written a review for Amazon before, but felt compelled to write one now, to try to counter the seemingly odd high reviews this book is getting.

I didn't really know anything about Bedlam before reading this book and I am sad to say, I don't really know any more about it now that I had dragged myself through what has to be the most boring book I have ever had the misfortune to read.

If only I had given up on it sooner and saved some minutes of my life.

I think the author must have been going through many 'lets write about that', 'lets also write about that' moments when planning this book, then she ended up trying to write them all at the same time....without much success.

There is just no substance to this book, she starts to talk about one person for a couple of lines, then heads off along another tangent and never actually comes back to the person she was talking about and provides very little information about the person in question.

Maybe the best option is to just to look for better books on the subject from the vast amount of references provided at the end of the book (possibly the most interesting bit).

If you are looking to learn more about this subject and are considering buying this book...please don't as you won't find yourself any better off at the long, bitter end of the best part of 300 pages!
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on 17 April 2009
Bedlam was the original cockney name for Bethlem Hospital, a "refuge" for lunatics; the inhabitants have made bedlam a dictionary word. This book sprints through the history of the complex with the hysteria of many of its patients. Many of the characters receive their "fifteen minutes of fame" precisely because of the fleeting existence they had.

Famous -or infamous as the case may be- inmates included the painter Richard Dadd, who killed his dad and Margaret Nicholson who tried to kill a King; at the time she was insane and King George III was in one of his sane periods. The author relates these tales and many others with relish. Writing about madness in all its forms is the basis for this book and the narrative enthusiastically writhes forward.

Of course there are lurid adventures - for example the madmen who cut off their penises- and Catherine Arnold exposes the dubious mental health doctors of old tying the naked wretches to straw beds alongside various other more violent remedies. One chapter is devoted to crazy women and their poor woes, some of these hatless females had their heads blistered. Latin might not have been a dead language when Bethlem was in its early throes but the quacks didn't adhere to Primum Non Nocere.

Medicine may have advanced and the understanding of mental illness more humane, the problem of fascination with psychotic people still thrives today. Freak shows and serial killers receive far greater newsprint than good luck stories. At least today's asylums don't have an open day when the public can visit and laugh at the idiot's misfortune, as recounted in this volume.

This is a quick read and for those with short attention spans; it's ideal. We surge through the centuries like the Gordon rioters hell bent on razing London. Go on; give it a butcher's hook.
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on 24 February 2010
An interesting and well researched read on the notorious hospital and it's history.
Well written and you will learn plenty of facts you may have been unaware of.

An intriguing piece of London's history.
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