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, when Margaret 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.