Top positive review
50 people found this helpful
Fascinating, horrifying and utterly absorbing
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!