Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Book Review #26: Bedlam by Greg Hollingshead

A fine Canadian historical novel by a fine Canadian novelist about a mad Englishman in the Napoleonic Era.

James Matthews, husband of Margaret, has just returned to England in 1797 after spending three years in a French jail. He is almost immediately sent to Bedlam, the sprawling hospital for the mad in London, apparently for reasons both medical and political. Matthews, who worked as a tea broker, was convinced he could help stave off war between the French and English because of his contacts with French revolutionaries and their British sympathizers. But, Matthews is also quite demented and paranoid and it is the ambiguities of his story that make this a compelling novel.

The story takes place between 1797 and 1818, and includes the first-person voices of Margaret, who ends up moving to Jamaica; John Haslam, an apothecary and medical doctor at Bedlam; and Matthews himself. Both his loving wife and Haslam try to determine why James remains in Bedlam for years although he appears essentially harmless. Through the eyes of these two characters, the novel also becomes a study in loyalty, ambition and conscience. The author’s re-creation of early nineteenth century London, especially the dreary hospital itself, is marvelous and the language is entirely appropriate to the period: “…it was time to rise dizzy and bilious and head out into another day in the place Matthews in his witting way called simply Old Corruption.” The dialogue is particularly well written and the character of James Matthews exhibits all the turmoil and eccentricities one would expect of a brilliant British madman.

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