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Just Visiting 2: Samuel Beckett

Next Monday (19 March 2012), the Archivist will give a Gresham lecture at the Museum of London on the subject of unrestricted public visiting to Bethlem, a phenomenon which effectively ceased in 1770. In contrast, this series of blog posts will concentrate on visitors to the Hospital from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Having profiled Queen Mary in January, this month we feature the Nobel Prize-winning author Samuel Beckett, who drew inspiration from visits he made to Bethlem in the composition of his first novel, Murphy (1938).

A friend of his, Dr Geoffrey Thompson, was Bethlem’s Junior House Physician from February 1935, and Acting Senior House Physician from May of the same year, until his resignation that October. “This gave Beckett the chance to come to Bethlem, where he walked in the grounds, visited the wards and played chess with Dr Thompson”, according to the author of a published history of the Hospital. “Beckett himself acknowledged that he used Bethlem as a point of departure for his novel Murphy, which had as its setting a sanatorium for the mentally ill, called the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat”.1

An acknowledged point of departure is one thing; a recoverable string of point-by-point correspondences between Bethlem and Beckett’s Mercyseat is quite another. It has been said that “the novelist destroys the house of his life and uses its stones to build the house of his novel” and that “a novelist’s biographers thus undo what a novelist has done, and redo what he undid” but “all their labour cannot illuminate either the value or the meaning of a novel, can scarcely even identify a few of the bricks”.2

Attempts at tracing the sources of Beckett’s inspiration have been made nonetheless, most notably in Chris Ackerley’s Demented Particulars: The Annotated Murphy (Edinburgh, 2004), in which identifications of varying degrees of plausibility are advanced: between ‘Dr Killiecrankie’ and Murdo Mackenzie, Bethlem’s Senior Assistant Physician, between Beckett’s county coroner and John Porter-Phillips, the Physician Superintendent, and between ‘Bim Clinch’ and Kenneth Cantle, deputy chief male attendant at the time of Beckett’s visits.

To these proposals we venture to add our own simple suggestion: that criticism should accord ample space to Samuel Becket’s storytelling powers, not to mention his caustic wit. Reading that no female nurse at the Mercyseat ‘had taken a male nurse to husband within living memory, though one had once been almost obliged to’,3 for example, is not meant to send us scurrying to Bethlem’s staff records looking for real-life scandal. It is meant to make us laugh, while simultaneously discomforting us.