"Conspiracies, plots, and paranoia are sweeping through London in the last days of the eighteenth century, and James Tilley Matthews has been caught under false pretenses and locked up in the city's vast, crumbling asylum. As his wife, Margaret, tries desperately to free him, political forces conspire to keep him locked up. Margaret's main adversary is John Haslam, the asylum's chief apothecary, a man torn between his conscience and the lure of scientific discovery: as James becomes more famous -- and more unhinged -- he becomes a valuable specimen for the young doctor and a pawn in a grand political conspiracy. Based on real people and events Bedlam: A Novel of Love and Madness is a brilliant evocation of a city teetering between darkness and light, and a moving study of every kind of madness." (From the back cover of the Picador edition)
Bedlam was not what I expected. For some reason I was thinking it would be a book along the lines of The Nature of Monsters. I don't know why I thought that, and that's not what it is. The story is mostly political, moved along slowly and seemed to expect more familiarity with the French Revolution than I possess. I didn't love the book, but I didn't dislike it either. The prose was lovely and the glimpses into the lives of the inmates and employees of Bethlam (aka "Bedlam") were fascinating. I wished there had been more of that. The intricate international politics went mostly over my head.
I've always felt that even a book I'm not crazy about has qualities that make it worth my time, and this one ended up having numerous passages that spoke to me personally even while I was wishy-washy about the story itself. I was surprised at how many little colored flags were sticking out when I was finished! Here are just a few examples:
"[I]f humankind is ever to deliver itself from bloodshed, then every person must understand they have the same worth as the next and each a free and full say in the common good. Estimate another's worth as greater than your own, and it follows that another's is less. From inequality it's a slippery slope to intolerance and from intolerance to resentment and resentment to oppression if you can and slaughter if you can't, so why make that first mistake? Until this primary human principle has been understood, how can the future not be perfect mayhem?" (p. 211)
"People tend to grant an oracle figure leeway. They like to stumble away from a godhead with something to think about." (p. 285)
"I considered how you can think of yourself as a certain sort of person yet watch yourself behave as quite another; and how easy it is that disjunction becomes simply how things are with you, and your failure to reconcile that contradiction, whenever it noses its way to awareness, you tell yourself is only the small, private price you must pay awhile longer yet if you would achieve such-and-such a worthy end." (p. 338-39)
"Brains are prone to certain kinds of error. One is assuming they were capable then of what they are only now." (p. 383)
See what I mean? Bedlam was okay, but I love these quotes and I would never have seen them if I hadn't read it. I know this doesn't begin to hold true for most people, but more and more I am of the opinion that no book is ever a complete waste of my time.