Just Visiting: Flora Tristan
This is the last entry in the series we have entitled Just Visiting. Material from all the entries, and much more, are available in Colin Gale’s Illustrious Company: Authors, Artists and Other Adventurers in Bethlem Hospital.
Insanity was first dubbed ‘the English malady’ in 1736, in an anonymous account of a visit made to Bethlem during the years of unrestricted public visiting, the author opining that “the people of England are more subject to madness than any nation in the world”, having “no exalted notions of philosophy to support themselves under the various dispensations of providence, nor any regard to the fundamental rules of their own religion, which afford them the greatest comfort…”1
About one hundred years later, the French socialist and proto-feminist Flora Tristan revived this unflattering trope in Promenades dans Londres (published in English translation under the title Flora Tristan’s London Journal 1840).
‘It is generally accepted that England is the country with the greatest number of insane’, she wrote, and offered the following explanation: ‘It is also the home of the greatest excesses of every type and it is the country where free inquiry gives rise to the greatest number of religious and philosophical sects.’ ‘The more a people is inclined, by its religion and its philosophy, to resignation, the fewer madmen there are in its midst’, thought Tristan, ‘whereas those peoples who by reason govern their religious beliefs and their conduct in life are those among whom one finds the greatest number of insane’.2 What is common to these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century accounts is a horror of the rationalist, moralist and fissiparious character of English Protestant religiosity. In particular, Tristan’s perspective on England, never mind Bethlem, was that of a true outsider. What was true of her was true of others as well. Sometimes it takes a visitor to observe and draw attention to things that those who are being visited take for granted, or do not even see.
One other aspect of Flora Tristan’s visit to Bethlem, as she described it in her journal, is worthy of note: a conversation which led to an intense encounter with a patient whose name and background closely mirrored that of a one-time suitor of hers, a ship’s captain who had, she said, ‘loved me with such purity and such devotion’ but who (she hitherto thought) had lost his life at sea:
'We have one of your compatriots here; his madness is unusual, he thinks he is God…He used to be a seaman, has seen the world, speaks all the languages and seems to have been a man of excellent capacities.’
‘What is his name?’
‘Chabrié!!..I cannot describe the effect produced upon me by that name; I could not ascertain exactly what I felt. Joy? Pain? Surprise? Anxiety?...I was impatient for the meeting; it was as if God had inspired me with the idea of coming to London in order to save the unfortunate Chabrié!’
‘…the hospital’s officer pointed out a man sitting alone on a bench…It was not the captain of the Mexicain…It occurred to me that the French name had been improperly pronounced; I asked the officer to write it out for me, and I saw that the name I had been given was pronounced the same, but spelled with an r at the end.’
‘’Oh! Mademoiselle, how pleased I am to encounter at last a compatriot! a woman! We speak the same language and I can convey to you my suffering! I can tell you of all the pain which afflicts me in this asylum of misery, where I am shut up by the most odious of injustices…it is God who has brought you here to this place of desolation, not to save me, for I must perish here, but to save the idea which I have come to bring to the world!’
Tristan’s meeting with Chabrier ended inconclusively with her wondering ‘Is that man really mad? Everything he said to me is indicative of a man whose head is filled with social, political and religious ideas and whose heart is overflowing with love of his fellow creature. … Jesus, Saint-Simon, Fourier had all spoken in the same way.’ Inconclusive it may have been, but it was a true meeting between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’; in Tristan’s words, ‘one of those bizarre, extraordinary encounters which, I believe, happen only to me.’