As well as focusing on 'Bedlam' itself, Catharine Arnold looks at the wider issue of madness in London and how the mentally ill were treated generally throughout the life of the hospital. This makes for a surprisingly wide-ranging book and one that doesn't become stale.
Bethlehem Hospital has been in existence since 1247, though in various locations around the capital. It survived scandals, both of cruelty and fraud, and the Great Fire of 1666 along with numerous problems surrounding the building itself. Arnold blends an ongoing narrative about the hospital with an examination of contemporary treatments of madness using primary sources wherever possible. This creates a sense of coherence, binding the hospital to wider events. One of the most interesting of these, for me, was the madness of George III which Arnold explores in chapter seven.
There are some surprisingly individual stories which appear in these pages. Perhaps my only criticism of the book is that we can't follow these people through their lives, though the author can hardly be held to blame for the shoddy record-keeping of previous centuries! I would recommend this book to anyone who would like an overview of London's record at caring for and treating mentally ill patients or a specific look at Bethlehem Hospital itself. Arnold's style is both accessible and involved, making this an easy book to digest but with many things to learn along the way. I'll leave you with a taster of it:
"The flames engulfed the wooden structure and spread swiftly to the surrounding properties, despite the efforts of two soldiers to pull them down. The screaming mob, the distant sound of gunfire, the terrified citizens running out of their houses and the sky itself, deadly red from soaring flames that produced a drift of smoky particles, created a vision of hell. To which was added an even more infernal dimension: the gutters blazed with burning alcohol. Flaming spirits ran through every crack and fissure, forming a deep pool into which people dropped down dead by the dozen. Scooping up the liquid in their bare hands, they drank until they died: husbands and wives, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, women with children in their arms and babies at their breasts. Some passed out straight away; others danced, half in triumph, half in torment, until they fell into the liquor that had killed them. Burns victims, their clothing still ablaze, mistook it for water and unwittingly hurled themselves into the lake of fire, dying in agony." (p144)