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Book Review: ‘Human Traces’

Back in March and April we posted reviews of books with mental health themes. Now we are pleased to add another review, written this time by a work experience student who was recently with us:

‘In the days leading up to, and during, my work experience placement at Bethlem Archives and Museum, I read Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks. I found the book of particular interest at this time because of the ways in which what I was reading linked with all that I was learning and experiencing at the Archives. The book is set in the years around the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and is about the attempts of two fictional doctors, Thomas Midwinter and Jacques Rebière, to make some kind of breakthrough in understanding and treating mental illnesses, back in a time when very little was known about these sorts of disorders.

'On the first day of my work experience placement I sat in on an educational visit from a school to the Archives. This began with a talk about the history of the hospital and how, in the past, the Bethlem has tried to treat and cure patients. Once again, I found myself making connections between this and Human Traces, especially in terms of the descriptions of the wards and of the use of ‘occupation’ to try and keep the patients busy and distract them from their problems. For example, nineteenth-century Bethlem had a library, sewing, sport teams, a choir and other activities which were available to the patients. All this was also around the time in which Thomas Midwinter, in the book, was working in a large county asylum which also offered its inmates such employment as sewing, gardening, working in a laundry, kitchen or workshop and farming. Another example of entertainment which Bethlem would provide was a monthly ball, an occurrence which is also found within Human Traces, although only once at the county asylum - at Christmas time.

'During my time here, I have been able to look a little bit at some of the case books for patients admitted in the early 1880s – the same time period within which Human Traces is set. It was possible for me to examine in contrast the real patients and those created by Faulks and see how each were treated in Bethlem in comparison with the attempts of the doctors and alienists at the same time in Human Traces. I found this the most interesting of connections as it seemed that some of the characters in the book could have been taken directly from the doctors’ notes in the casebooks. The case books also provide another connection with Human Traces as Thomas Midwinter, whilst working in the county asylum, was concerned at the lack of records of the patients and so painstakingly wrote up case books of his own, such as the ones kept at the archive.

'The book Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks is one which I have really enjoyed reading and its vivid descriptions offer a fairly accurate view of the development of the understanding of mental health around the turn of the 20th Century. It is concerned with the development of psychiatry to such an extent that this rather dominates the book; however, there are many sub-plots which relate to less scientific and more conventional themes such as love, family and friendship.'