Nigel Jarrett reviews Dangerous Asylums: Stories from Denbigh Mental Hospital (considered at the forefront of treatment when it opened in 1848), edited by Rob Mimpriss.
Leading Welsh writers create fictions based on records held by Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board.
Speculation is the idle relative of imagination. To speculate is to risk error; to imagine is to investigate the limits of the possible. Imagination, by its very nature, cannot pinion the whole truth, but it has the advantage of sympathetic input, always the prerequisite of understanding. In attempting to discover what it was like for Victorian society to deal with the mentally sick, the nine writers contributing to Dangerous Asylums (ed. Rob Mimpriss) had access to hospital records, from which they have constructed wholes at least equal to the sum of their parts.
Although the word ‘asylum’ connotes sanctuary, its use as a description of a mental hospital raises practical and etymological difficulties. The Victorians called their mental hospitals asylums with every wish that they should be progressive and humane refuges from ignorance and abuse. Today, ‘asylum’ is avoided by the prissy because it is considered too flippant a label to encompass the different manifestations of hysteria. In our age, the idea that the ‘mad’ are actually sane still prevails, with a certain amount of validity. It’s also an age which shoulders a legacy of that Victorian beneficence: the hospitals themselves often became associated with rough treatment and were certainly over-crowded; their offer of relief from rejection and obloquy was always going to be conditional. On entering an asylum as a patient, one has not fled one’s demons but has taken them along as the reason for being at its threshold. Inside, throughout the history of mental illness, the means of overcoming them have been by turns expedient, enlightened, controversial, frustrating and, it has to be said, brutal – if by brutal is meant physically uncompromising. Or does that sound euphemistic? What is a nurse supposed to do when confronted by violent patients at risk of harming others as well as themselves? Most patients are not violent and are hospitalised for as long as it takes to effect a cure or an abatement of their condition. So what is appropriate treatment? Are drugs always the answer to the problems of the mentally ill? Is mental illness really an ‘illness’? This is a pin-cushion of a subject pierced all over by questions. Sometimes, there are answers. But, in the same way that the workings of the brain are still only partly understood, our ideas of what constitutes a fit and proper life for the mental patient will always be arguable. Patients are so often out of sight and, in another of language’s backflips, out of mind in two senses.
Dangerous Asylums, a paperback book, arose out of a desire to make imaginative sense of the records of Denbigh Hospital, considered at the forefront of treatment when it opened in 1848. Welsh writer Rob Mimpriss recruited the writers, one of whom includes A.L Reynolds, the first to make the project accessible to a wider public. Mimpriss edits, contributes a story, and translates one of the others from the Welsh. His Believer, 1905, introduces a key issue: the provenance and treatment of mania. Did the impact of the religious revival led by Evan Roberts in Wales at the start of the 20th century cause young Rowland Davies’s illness or exacerbate something already present? In the clinicians Dr. Herbert and Dr. Cox, Mimpriss embodies two attitudes to treatment derived from the answer to that question, neither the conservative nor the progressive one having any strong empirical foundation. Mental illness can be described but is subject to only changing – and sometimes startling – theories of causation. Mimpriss concludes with the possibility that both Roberts and Davies were exhibiting the same symptoms of hysteria, which may imply an indictment of religion in at least one of its proselytising forms. Certainly, advances in the study of illness have been made by clearing away confusion, even to as dramatic an extent as this. In a footnote, the author records that the wild enthusiasm of Roberts, the evangelist, and Davies, his febrile convert, both waned with time and in parallel. But again, it’s only circumstantial evidence, not scientific. There was hysteria and it had to be dealt with.
Rob Mimpriss looks at the subject from the outside; other writers attempt to enter the minds of the sufferers. It’s ever a risky approach, if only because the deranged and their thought processes are by most definitions irrational. In Imagining Angels, Glenda Beagan’s narrator seems anything but. There’s no sense in which she mistakes her imaginings for reality, unlike the old woman in Mimpriss’s story, happily knitting without wool; nor is she under any illusion that the hospital where she resides is a place of safety. Hers are guardian angels, their number related to the asylum’s clock-tower chimes, which become lost among ‘the bustling sounds of morning’. Like others, she feigns sleep in order not to be offered ‘mist chloral’. (The reader can take an educated guess at what that was.) To feign is to have a deal of self-control and awareness, for she’s a former teacher who has undergone some kind of breakdown. That she doesn’t remember its circumstances – indeed, why it means she will never teach again – gives Beagan’s story its unexpected power and poignancy, and a disturbing quality. Who knows if the malady might return. And where does it originate? Few mental traumas conform to our perceptions of how the mentally ill function and behave, and Beagan’s narrator will probably leave the hospital fitter but none the wiser. A Drowning, And Resurfacing Slowly, Reynolds’s story, offers a different slant on recollection. Catherine has drowned her screaming daughter in a rage (‘a devil taking me over’). It’s clearly a daughter who was giving her mother insurmountable grief (‘her screams are like bells in my head’), a mother already racked by poverty and delusions of death. At the (English-speaking) Rampton, she gives birth to another child, but it’s taken away from her temporarily. Catherine’s plight of social deprivation, trial by jury, imprisonment, transfer to Rampton and a move back to Denbigh Asylum, reflects the uncertainty of how to deal with her and people like her. Doctors say she is ‘melancholic’ and needs to keep herself busy, ‘not think’ and to eat well, as confusing a prescription as could be imagined but perhaps perfectly sound as far as it went. Catherine is deemed to be ‘cured’ and is allowed to return home. It’s a happy enough ending among other stories of Dangerous Asylum that guarantee no gilded dawns.
Going Back, by Manon Steffan Ros, is translated by Rob Mimpriss into English. It’s a spare, uncompromising account by a woman who regards the asylum – first Bethesda, then Denbigh – as her true ‘home’, the place to which her condition, lodged in some unspecified guilt, seems to be gravitationally pulled. But her sense of home, a place to which she is travelling by train, is distorted as she makes for the tracks that will be her her salvation, her nemesis, and her end. In barely three pages, Ros writes in the language of the truly disturbed. Simon Thirsk’s The Quietude is based on the discovery in physical medecine of causes, cures, and outcomes, a trinity confounded or denied only by primitive thought or in primitive societies. The imponderables of mental illness are thus often and inevitably dealt with by containment: of the individual or of those who seek to deny the illness its perpetuation. The grandfather in Thirsk’s tale will refuse his favourite grand-daughter her inheritance if she marries, on the grounds that there is madness in the family and it is transmitted along the distaff line. Again, madness’s source may be so uncertain as to make one question the very word and its manifestations as appropriate signifiers for conditions mildly threatening but little to do with true sickness. Physical malfunction may have presented itself to our forebears as emanating from the mind as ‘soul’, not from the corporeal frame. The ‘madness’ of the old man’s sister, Alwen, was ascribed by their mother to difficulties of birth and a concomitant ‘lack of air’. Poor Alwen, druan bach, sang in an out-of-tune, shouty voice, so that did for her as an unclassifiable strange one. The brother, Siôn, conceivably made mad by family tragedy, presents a different case in the context of his confinement and the narrator’s increasing prosperity in London as one of Caradoc Evans’s rising metropolitan ex-pats. In a footnote alluding to the story’s real characters, Thirsk notes that the grand-daughter, Annabel, did have a daughter. Both were psychiatrists who, inconclusively, researched the link between bipolar disorder and heredity. Fascinating.
The story which best reflects the subject-matter in Dangerous Asylums is The Pigman’s Year, by Gee and David Williams, even though its plot might be considered slightly corny: a pigman who was a bugler in the Great War gets his lip and his mental stability back – well, partly. The authors refuse to spoonfeed the reader with a ‘safe’ narrative sequence but present what’s going on by viewing the happenings, including the dialogue, through a kind of masking stage flat. It’s just how one imagines mental confusion and oscillating memory to be in someone who has been blacked out by shock. Isn’t that what all who deal with mental illness desire: the return of normality, the emptying of the wards, the successful treatment of the hitherto untreatable? Richards leaves Denbigh with a filched bugle mouthpiece. It was the fourth to go missing that year. Four minds beginning to lose their shrieking dissonances. In Carys Bray’s The Elves and The Shoemaker, scarlet fever has spirited away the three sons of David Lewis, the ‘elves’ who helped him cut leather. The experience broke him. He accidentally injures his wife. He becomes unreliable and a burden. His hair falls out. Who is he? A man who can no longer cope. As in Rob Mimpriss’s story, there are two doctors who each represent conflciting attitudes to treatment. Lewis’s tragedy is that there’s no sign of recuperation: ‘My thoughts no longer reach my feet or fingers. My arms and legs have come unlaced and I inhabit an ever-shrinking space behind my eyes.’ It all ended, in a way, when the hospital closed, an event explored in Elaine Walker’s A Bridge to Puffin Island. The title refers to a half-completed drawing scribbled somewhere in an empty and abandoned hospital. The decaying pile weeps its memories in the falling wallpaper and the condensation, as two women walk its deserted spaces seeking an alternative use for the building. But the hauntings prove too real, the past too close for reasoned thought. The voices include those from the surrounding town, explaining what locals felt about the place: that it was well-run or ‘a disaster’. I live near such a building, the former Penyfal Hospital at Abergavenny, now converted into flats and apartments behind what some might think is a still-grim facade. Close by is a half-acre grass plot planted with trees where 3,000 hospital patients were buried during the hospital’s lifetime. It speaks as eloquently of society’s attitude to madness as it does of the anonymous fates of the mad themselves. It can say nothing of the efforts made to deal with mental disorder or their failures and breakthroughs.
The combination of language and medical history informing the Dangerous Asylums reminds us that ‘madness’ is itself part of a rich word hoard. When we say that someone is mad, we mean something specific; we would not mean the individual was certifiable. As soon as we stopped calling people mad, meaning ‘crazy’, we took a step towards understanding what really troubled them. It was a kind of progress in an area nevertheless still notable for conjecture, experiment, reversals, and slow pace. To it is joined this book’s rich imaginings, adding more details to the picture.
Dangerous Asylums ed. Rob Mimpriss is available from the North Wales Mental Health Research Project website.
Nigel Jarrett is a winner of the Rhys Davies prize for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. He’s a former daily-newspaperman and a regular contributor to the Wales Arts Review, Jazz Journal and Acumen poetry magazine, among others. He is also a poet and novelist. His latest story collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, was published in 2016, as was his first novel, Slowly Burning. This year sees the publication of his short fiction pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy.