First and Before All Things

Written by Kate Wilby
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

This is the story of the Norwich Bethel, a sanctuary for “lunaticks” founded in 1713 by the enlightened and compassionate Mary Chapman, widow of an Anglican clergyman. Daughter of a mayor of Norwich, in the novel Mary is moved to open the Bethel (where she lived herself until her death in 1724) by her experience in caring for mentally afflicted family members and by her father’s account of the horrors of visiting the Bethlem Hospital—colloquially known as Bedlam—where inmates were treated as little more than freaks goaded to amuse visitors.

Mary tells her life story against a dramatic backdrop of events from Puritanism to the eventual extinction of the Protestant Stuart line. Her marriage to Chapman, late for the time, is described as a tender love story. Mary’s attempts to find a site for her hospital were held up by a nimbyism which has modern echoes wherever there are attempts to provide accommodation for ex-prisoners, drug addicts, or asylum seekers, but her struggles to be heard as a woman and widow are symptomatic of her time.

Quibbles are that early on this reads somewhat like a history book rewritten in the first person singular. There are occasional lapses like the modern use of “tasked with” and the assertion that Bethlem acquired its nickname because it was a chaotic and noisy place, whereas Bedlam is a corruption of Bethlem and has only since come to signify that chaos. That said, the novel is beautifully written, impeccably researched, and shines a much-deserved spotlight on a remarkable woman. Her hospital has in modern times been converted to other uses, but Mary’s work is remembered in present-day Norwich in the NHS’s Bethel Child and Family Centre.