Bedlam: A Novel of Love and Madness


"Bedlam's eighteenth-century London is a city teetering between darkness and light, struggling to find its way to a more just and humane future. But in its darkest corners, where noblemen, pickpockets, royalists, and republicans jostle one another for power and where corruption is all in a day's work, Greg Hollingshead finds humanity, truth, decency, and forgiveness." Conspiracies, plots, and paranoia sweep across England in the aftermath of the French Revolution, landing James Tilly Matthews in Bethlem Hospital, a notorious, crumbling home for
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Bedlam: A Novel of Love and Madness

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"Bedlam's eighteenth-century London is a city teetering between darkness and light, struggling to find its way to a more just and humane future. But in its darkest corners, where noblemen, pickpockets, royalists, and republicans jostle one another for power and where corruption is all in a day's work, Greg Hollingshead finds humanity, truth, decency, and forgiveness." Conspiracies, plots, and paranoia sweep across England in the aftermath of the French Revolution, landing James Tilly Matthews in Bethlem Hospital, a notorious, crumbling home for the insane. Although he is clearly delusional, 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 increasingly famous patient, becomes another puppet in a game governed by shifting rules and shadowy players.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Superbly disturbing . . . a profoundly moving examination of both mental and political lunacy."—The Boston Globe

"Bedlam has no end of gorgeous writing . . . elegant, heartfelt . . . filled with rewarding descriptions of a bygone era."—The New York Times Book Review

"A vivid picture of the grotesque patients and sadistic staff of the 'English Bastille' adds density to the gallows humor that peppers this brutal story."—Publishers Weekly

"Stylishly written, full of dazzling, epigrammatic insights . . . An intellectual novel, but also a moving story about fully fleshed human beings."—The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

Andrew Sean Greer
Lesser writers of historical fiction often stoop to melodrama. Hollingshead, happily, does not, though he does resemble the headstrong theatrical producer who buys the costumes first and then is forced to find actors to fit them. But while his storytelling may not be the reason to read Bedlam, his love of language—so carefully unearthing and framing a long-lost time—certainly is.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Canadian Hollingshead (The Roaring Girl) offers a sprawling story based on a contentious historical episode. In 1797, James Tilly Matthews was committed to Bethlem (aka Bedlam), the notorious British lunatic asylum, after nattering on about an "air loom" machine used by villains to control people. But there was more to it; Matthews claimed he was being punished for going on a peace mission to France during the Revolution. Certainly his confinement had not been ordered by John Haslam, the Bethlem apothecary who treated him, nor by his wife, Margaret, who tried for nearly 20 years to have him released. Hollingshead deploys all three as narrators of this fictionalized account: Matthews, who slips in and out of lucidity; Mrs. Matthews, singleminded (and therefore largely uninteresting); and Haslam, whose use of Matthews as a research subject makes his motives suspect. Hollingshead's language slides between the centuries as he tangles with provocative themes: the causes and treatments of mental illness, the battle between service and self-interest in the doctor/scientist, and the ways mad members of society can reflect the chaos of the world outside. A vivid picture of the grotesque patients and sadistic staff of the "English Bastille" adds density to the gallows humor that peppers this brutal story. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Painstaking-sometimes pain-making-exegesis of an illustrious paranoiac's imprisonment in London's Bethlem asylum. This historical novel by Canadian author Hollingshead (The Healer, 1999) suffers from too much history and not enough story. Protagonist James Tilly Matthews, a London tea merchant on a peace mission to France during the Terror, becomes convinced that he is being persecuted by the Air Loom Gang, Jacobin mind-control agents who infiltrate brains and bodily fluids by manipulating a pneumatic machine. Back in England, "Jamie" is ensnared by double-dealing politicians and consigned to Bethlem Hospital (aka Bedlam). His wife, Margaret, spends years trying to get him released, but can't even get care packages or letters past the gatekeepers. After many futile administrative proceedings, reported in scrupulous and deadening detail, Margaret takes their son to Jamaica because she fears repercussions from Jamie's political enemies. Margaret and Jamie alternate narration with John Haslam, the "apothecary" of Bedlam, who has mixed motives for continuing Jamie's confinement. Despite a nasty bedsore, Jamie adjusts to lunatic life, warming to his keepers, especially crusty, pronunciation-impaired Alavoine. He learns the engraving trade in Bedlam, writes Margaret letters that never get past Alavoine, keeps a stenographic log of asylum abuses and contributes architectural designs for the construction of a new Bethlem. A parliamentary inquiry results in Haslam's disgrace and dismissal in 1816, but not Jamie's release. By the end, Jamie is thriving in the 1800s equivalent of a group home, where Mad King George also finds convivial respite. So intractable is Jamie's Stockholm syndrome that, whenMargaret and a contrite Haslam secure his freedom, he balks. Excessive exposition mutes the drama, and readers hoping for lurid scenes of primitive psychiatry will be disappointed. Cerebral entertainment; those with experience perusing dry and dusty tomes may find this worth the slog.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312427429
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 10/30/2007
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 708,237
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

Greg Hollingshead has won Canada's Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction for The Roaring Girl and is the author of The Healer, which won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and was a Giller Prize finalist. He lives in Edmonton, where he is professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, and he is also director of writing programs at the Banff Centre. Visit his Web site at

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Read an Excerpt


By Hollingshead, Greg

Thomas Dunne Books

Copyright © 2006 Hollingshead, Greg
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780312354749

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.


Excerpted from Bedlam by Hollingshead, Greg Copyright © 2006 by Hollingshead, Greg. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Posted April 29, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Good Read

    I thought it was good and really enjoyed the multiple narrative writing style. The book does have a difficult vocabulary making it hard to fully appreciate but I still understood what was going on. I'd recommend this to anyone.

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  • Posted December 16, 2008

    Bedlam feels just that...

    I would say for half of the book, the story is understandable and flowing; but somewhere around page 330 the sub-plot about the 'gang' and the going back and forth with why the character is in the hospital, it feels like the it should have been written to be a 350 page story and not 471 pages. You lose it almost completely at page 400 or so.<BR/> 3 stars. It wasn't great, but it wasn't bad. Good for a weekend.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 5, 2008

    Brilliantly Written

    I truly enjoyed reading this book and I advise anyone who enjoys reading about conspiracies and the sweeping sensation of paranoia as they travel into the minds of the characters. It is one of my favorite books.

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