'My name is Bess and I'm a mad girl.'
Some time last spring I wrote those words and from them sprang a brand new story – the current WIP which may or may not make my fortune, get me an agent, snare a brace of publishers or just keep me in cheese and CD's for the next few years.
The mad girl was a character who had rather unceremoniously muscled her way in from another unpublished book and who knows – perhaps the right story has been waiting for her and the other one will never see the light of day. But one thing's for certain - that is that my Bess firmly insists on not being ignored and seeing the light of day in her own right and who am I to argue?
Bess is the alter ego of Elizabeth Curzon, a young girl in 1850's London, who, finding herself in near poverty due to her feckless father, discovers a new life on the streets as apprentice to Old Lizzie, a professional Bess o' Bedlam. Hopefully you will eventually be able to read what follows but for now Bess is merely the springboard to this blog.
Of late I have been rather taken by the notion of madness. No, don't worry, the divinity of madness hasn't actually come upon me – well no more than usual – but I seem increasingly drawn to the idea of what madness actually is. A few years ago I taught confidence classes in a drop in centre for people with mental health issues. One of the oddest things about this was that there was little obvious sign of any disturbance to the user's equilibrium, due to medication keeping things largely on an even keel. Rather like that wonderful scene on the boat in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, most of the time you really could believe that the 'clients' could be the doctors.
Of course any health matter is all about interpretation and quite often the mood of the person at the time. For the most part the people I taught - even those who I just saw on a day to day basis - were happy and secure as long as they were familiar with both people and environment, which was surely the point. As part of a similar project called 'Chasing The Sun' I also taught several sessions at a halfway house facility. Again - although there was clearly an undercurrent of life away from my teaching sessions - the whole experience felt a great deal less 'mad' than say the three months I taught in HM Prison Shepton Mallett in 1994, where on the first day we were locked in a woodwork room stocked with abundant 'weaponry' - albeit in glass cases - with a group of eight inmates who had arrived to find that woodwork had been cancelled and they had to do drama!
It was when I had finished my confidence work in 2010-12 however that I came to feel increasingly depressed and for most of that time also, worthless. I have never entirely picked out the bones of why that was and this is not the platform on which to do it. One thing it did do was to make me think. A lot.
What does a mad person look like? Most of us who suffer one of several levels of depression look just like you or me because they are you and especially me. We don't wear a badge or carry a government health warning on our lapel. What we do – to coin a wartime phrase – is just to keep on carrying on.
Perhaps part of my own way of dealing with something as common as depression has been to write a novel where someone is pretending to be mad and where – in the end – she almost loses sight of who is Bess and who is Elizabeth. I recently re-read one of my favourite books, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and if you haven't I urge you etc. The book is, among other things, about identity and deception whereas my book is more about hiding a true self behind a deliberate deceit. But unlike Fingersmith - where the deceit comes via others and the plans they weave around the heroine - Elizabeth's deceit comes solely from herself. In the end her alter ego construct is so great that she begins to use her as a convenience when she wishes to ignore or escape from 'soft Elizabeth.'
Robert Schumann wasn't soft and, despite his early death at 46 in Endenich asylum, he didn't suffer from a split personality. But in his recent, otherwise excellently argued biography, John Worthen tries so hard to convince the reader that RS never suffered from depression that he only convinces me that he surely did. Just because Schumann never uses the actual word 'depression' in his diaries and – crucially – because he continues to work during his many black times - surely - Worthen suggests - he can't really be that depressed if he manages to produce 130 of possibly the greatest songs ever written within 11 months. With the benefit of hindsight we know that the actual reason Schumann went mad and - in the end - had to be put away - was likely due to tertiary syphilis.. But that doesn't take away the question his continuing mental problems. I presume the author himself has never suffered from depression, or he would surely recognise that bouts of creative brilliance do not always equal happiness and that it may quite often be quite the opposite!
|Tom Philips - Last Notes From Endenich|
Which might again beg the question not only of how we define madness but how much of it might be 'divine'. By modern definitions of schizophrenia for example, a whole host of saints,mystics, hermits and holy men and women, (Buddha springs to mind), might have been put away for their own and the public's safety.Equally, sensitives, shaman and even the odd inspired bard like me might find themselves at the very least forced into treatment, without any understanding that all too often these are almost dictated vocations which are all but unavoidable
Surely then the best the rest of us can do is to sympathise with all those troubled voices when we hear them, whether they were smiling when they were creating their masterpiece or not. The character in my book has - for her own reasons - chosen madness as both a profession and a life style. Not everyone gets the choice.
I'm aware that this is all a little serious so I'll leaven it with a true recent anecdote. Having finished the Schumann book, I was talking to my mother on the phone about it. I was telling her how in the asylum, the doctor's became obsessed with the firmness of Schumann's stool as being some kind of monitor of future sanity! Wishing no doubt to consolidate my role as family wit, I suggested that this might actually be a good idea because if his stool hadn't been firm enough, he wouldn't have been able to sit to play the piano! The next night my unfortunate elderly father was rushed into hospital with a - shall we say - not unrelated condition.
I'd like to say that I'll keep my big mouth shut in the future but unfortunately I know myself all too well!
John Worthen's Robert Schumann - Life and Death of a Musician is published by Yale University Press.
If you fancy checking out Schumann's astonishing bursts of creativity - whether he was depressed or not? - you could do worse than begin with Hyperion's 11 Volume Complete Schumann songs with the pianist Graham Johnson. The gems - and a great deal of small jewels more besides - are there for all to hear.