I confess a little trepidation on opening this novel but Inside the Beautiful Inside is surprisingly readable considering the weight of the subject matter. This is a biographical fiction loosely based on the story of James Norris, an American who became a marine in the British navy and served under William Bligh, (the captain who sparked the mutiny on the Bounty). The novel is a reimagining of the time Norris spent in Bethlem Hospital after his time in the services, fifteen long brutal years. If ever there was a misnomer it’s the use of the word hospital to describe the torture chamber that was Bethlem but this novel is not bogged down by misery. Norris tells his own story and curiously this gives the novel a slightly lighter feel than readers might anticipate. There’s a sense of freedom inside Norris’s mind even though it’s damaged and under attack from the world around it. Bullock slips comfortably inside Norris’s head as he narrates his story; at times his flights of fancy take him beyond the confinement of his cell, his daydreams are a refuge from the horrors around him – the ill treatment and neglect, but his mind also betrays him, the darkness of memory can be a curse too, full of rage and thoughts of revenge. This is a story is horrifying but the way it is told is not an off putting one, it’s well written and totally engaging.

Deptford, 1800. The Seaman’s Mission. Norris isn’t sleeping well, he can’t tell whether he’s dreaming or awake. When the orderlies come for him, load him in a carriage and take him away his fevered imagination believes he has a new ship and these are his new ship mates. He’s a proud marine, nobody will ever take his red coat and boots. The vessel, (hospital), is huge, the decks, (corridors), long, suddenly Norris doesn’t want to go through the next set of doors, the ones with big locks. The orderlies get rougher, the grip on his arms tighter, they begin to push and kick, they laugh when he protests, ignore his fear and disorientation. This is Bethlem Hospital, the men who are supposed to be looking after the patients, (inmates), are Fleet and Rodley:

‘They say I’m mad. I say they’re mad. I lost the flip. That’s me locked up in Bethlem Hospital. “Come boys, who’s for Bethlem?”’

A couple of months later Norris makes a friend, Old Man Hook introduces himself to Norris in the crowded communal cell with a warning:

“Keep all you’ve got about you. Keep clean. Keep quiet.”

Hook tells him to keep his head down, avoid angering the orderlies or Dr. Crowther. Don’t give them an excuse to lock you away permanently. If Norris behaves for one year, he can get out, he only has ten months to go. But he is haunted by the ghosts of the past, the betrayal of his love Ruth, the betrayal of his friend Fletcher Christian. Norris has no one on the outside fighting his cause, he is forgotten, abandoned. He doesn’t make the year, not that it’s his fault, but that means isolation. They lock him in a single cell, chained by the neck to a stake in the centre of the room. He can hear the boots pass by outside the door, hear the ‘screamer’ laughing manically, howling, nearby, there’s no access to daylight or fresh air, the winter is biting cold, the chains burn. Norris is at the mercy of the cruel staff for the next fourteen years.

Readers may make the connection with the current Covid-19 and spare a thought for those in isolation over the last six months, those with mental health problems even more cut off from support than usual. I found myself considering how well we take care of mental health patients now, particularly at this strange time, we may be a world away from the horrific lack of treatment of a century ago but mental health care is still an issue society likes to keep at arm’s length.

I can only imagine one thing worse than spending time in an early nineteenth century prison and that would be incarceration in Bethlem Hospital. While several prison reforms were mooted over the years Norris spent in Bethlem the hospitals didn’t get the same attention. It was easier to lock the door of the asylum and ignore what went on inside. Eventually in 1815 things changed for Norris and the institution and it’s treatment of patients was finally scrutinized and found wanting.

A poignant and shocking novel, that convincing portrays the pain and suffering of a mentally ill man but also the attitudes of the time that made things so much worse.

Everything With Words, ISBN 9781911427193, paperback, 24/9/20

Personal read 4*
Not a group read.