Antonia White is one of the most famous former patients at Bethlem. She wrote movingly of her experience at the St George’s Fields, Southwark building both in her novel ‘Beyond the Glass’ and ‘Strangers’, a collection of short stories, We’ve looked at Antonia White before on our blogs, but we haven’t examined her time in Bethlem through her written accounts, interrogating what it can tell us about her time in the Hospital.
The records of Antonia’s time in the Hospital do not particularly stand out from other entries in the casebooks. She is described as ‘incoherent’ and showing ‘maniacal excitement’ by the doctors who sent her to Bethlem, and the supposed cause is given as ‘anxiety’. In her initial interview at Bethlem she is described by the doctors as excited, though they also record that she believes she has been possessed by a malevolent spirit, and that her delusions have a religious nature.
This rather flat language is bought vividly to life in ‘Beyond the Glass’. Recognising that her marriage has been a disaster, Clara (Antonia’s surrogate in this novel) finds happiness in a new relationship with Richard, a dashing officer in the Scots Guard. However the novel subtly hints at her lack of sleep, her refusal to eat, and the worry of her parents and friends that Clara catches even as she reassures them that she is fine. The fog that swirls around 1920s London mirrors the confusing fog in her thoughts and head, and this fog eventually seems to seep into her final moment of breakdown, a moment clearly exacerbated by her tiredness and stress.
There is very little in Antonia’s notes on her treatment, as there very often isn’t for any patient in the Hospital at this time. However, in the novel this blank space is memorably filled by her lightly fictionalised recollections of the ‘Nazareth Royal Hospital’. Her initial impressions of this Bethlem are of chaos and confusion- reading between the lines, it appears she is heavily sedated, as many patients were when entering in real life. Her cell is described as shabby and white washed, the staff appear to be mocking her, and there is a very real sense of horror in the depiction of forced feeding (one of the few aspects of treatment confirmed by her notes). Clara is herself clearly not well, and the novel is written as if her delusions are real, making it hard to tell what is actually happening and what is in her mind.
Her case notes record that within six months she was ‘tak[ing] her food herself again’. In the novel Clara becomes more aware of her surroundings and herself. However her impressions of her room (cold and bare) and the ward as plain and uninteresting stand in contrast to our surviving photographs of Bethlem’s interior. The recollection of the exercise yard as a barren place with nothing growing seem at odds with many of the photographs too, though we have located this one which matches the description. Her care from nurses Smith and Jones is by turns brusque and brusquely affectionate, but again seemingly different from what we might have expected from one of the best regarded psychiatric hospital’s in the country.
So why are there these differences? It does seem as if Antonia mainly captures her early experiences at Bethlem. We know that at the initial point of admission, many patients were kept more like prisoners until the Hospital felt like they could be moved to more comfortable quarters (as, indeed, Clara is later moved). Equally, the photos that have survived to us were carefully produced and stage-managed by the Hospital, and were certainly more focussed on positive images- possibly so they could show these photographs to relatives worried about their family members.
Clara eventually moves to a nicer ward, with a proper bed, decoration, and is allowed to attend the dining room with other patients. At this point she seems to move into the Bethlem that we have more evidence for in our records- including our learning resource here. She even plays croquet, though that in itself descends into a trying and difficult experience. The climax of the novel is her reconnection with her family while on secondment from the Hospital, an event recorded by a curt ‘patient was discharged by committee- recovered’ as the last entry in the case notes.
The penultimate paragraph though captures some of the joy and relief present in the family reunion in Beyond the Glass: ‘Dr Beaton interviewed the patient’s father today. He was imperative in his desire to take his daughter away. This attitude was aided and abetted by the patient herself. The net result is that the patient has gone on 14 days leave’.
This wasn’t the last encounter Antonia had with the Bethlem building in Southwark. Just as memorable and interesting are her indignant thoughts on encountering the building by accident many decade later. We look at ‘Surprise Visit’ from ‘Strangers’ in this video.