Well, it’s official: Bedlam has finally been unleashed, and local author and former U of A prof Greg Hollingshead couldn’t be happier. When Vue caught up with Hollingshead earlier this week, Bedlam ranked sixth on Maclean’s bestseller list, was already in its second printing and had received the most lavish of critical reviews. “The reviews have been uniformly positive, unless the publisher is keeping the negative ones away from me,” Hollingshead laughs. “I don’t think they are.”

The acclaimed Edmonton author’s newest novel is set in London’s Bethlem Hospital between the years 1797 and 1818. A sequence of first-person accounts by the novel’s three protagonists, Bedlam fictionally documents the confinement of James Tilly Matthews in the asylum’s “incurables” wing. Matthews is at the centre of a storm of controversy: his wife Margaret insists that her husband is substantially “sane” and is actually being confined for uniquely political reasons. John Haslam, the ambitious apothecary and chief administrator of the hospital, on the other hand, has an inkling of the political complexities surrounding the case but resolutely maintains that Matthews is insane. Therein lies the central tension of the novel: is Matthews really sane and incarcerated so that governmental authorities might save face, or is his residency at Bethlem for legitimate, psychiatric reasons? Hollingshead provides no easy answers. Bedlam spans 19 years and almost 500 pages, in which the aroma of political conspiracy is nearly indistinguishable from Matthew’s cerebral delusions.

Much of the discussion circulating around Bedlam has focussed on perhaps its most unique facet: Hollingshead’s intricate reconstruction of the writing style of the 18th century. “It seems to me,” he says, “that 18th-century language is ideal for telling stories because it has a kind of intensity to it without being tiring…. It’s noun-oriented, thing-oriented, and there’s something sort of down to earth about it. It doesn’t spend a lot of time with modification. There are not a lot of adjectives to it, just nouns and verbs.”

The project began with Hollingshead simply searching for a story that would give him the opportunity to use this language. After research failed to locate an inspiring storyline in his own family annals, he came across some notes he’d made while reading Roy Porter’s The Faber Book of Madness. There, he’d read excerpts from John Haslam’s book on James Tilly Matthews, Illustrations of Madness.

Matthews was a British tea broker who, because of his sympathies for the French Republicans, was confined to Bethlem. In his book, Haslam intended to address the claims that Matthews was in the asylum for political rather than medical reasons. (The volume, illustrated with Matthew’s own meticulous engravings of the “airloom” he claimed manipulated his paranoid-delusional mind, is the first in English dedicated to the exposition of a single psychiatric patient.) In this exceptionally thorough study, Haslam endeavoured to quell the debate with explicit proof that James Tilly Matthews was undeniably insane.

“I was very struck by two things,” Hollingshead says about Illustrations of Madness. “How interesting James Tilly Matthews’s delusional system was, and how lovingly and well-written Haslam’s account was. At the same time, Haslam’s tone was somewhat sneering or mocking. It seemed to me that there was a story there. And when I pursued it, [it turned out] that Haslam was quite conflicted about the patient.”

Hollingshead made Haslam the central character of his novel, and imported his ambiguous sentiments toward his patient as one of the text’s central tensions. Another of the major conundrums was how to calibrate Matthew’s mental stability. Reading Matthew’s first-person narrative in Bedlam is an unravelling experience: the voice is lucid, exquisitely written, and indeterminably delusional. Usually a reader is readily able to assess the veracity of a narrator and detect any ideological taint in his perspective. But here, those tasks become impossible. Matthew’s delusional system—particularly the airloom, a complicated mind-control apparatus that has been recreated by the artist Rod Dickinson from Matthew’s engravings, at www.theairloom.org—is so internally consistent that it’s hard to tell whether it might actually exist.

Unlike almost all the paranoid delusions that preceded it, Matthew’s airloom is noteworthy because it did not draw from Christianity for its imagery. The delusion was entirely secular, Hollingshead explains, taking its imagery from the industrial revolution. “I think it comes from the fact that his mother was a silk weaver,” he says. “It’s a loom image. She lived and died chained to her loom. It’s an industrial revolution image, it’s a machine. It incorporates magnets and Mesmer [the guy who said that all we need to do is get ourselves properly magnetized in order to be well]. So, yes, it’s entirely his delusion, but coming out of what was in the air at the time—metaphorically in the air, as in the ideas that were circulating, but for him it was a physical reality.”

The book is a gamble; by immersing himself so deeply in a challenging, “antique” prose style, Hollingshead ran the risk of creating a novel that would be unintelligible to most lay readers. It was certainly unintelligible to at least one supposedly sophisticated reader: the National Post reviewer claimed to find the 18th-century dialect so incomprehensible that she was unable to differentiate the voices of the three narrators. “That kind of risk is the kind of thing that you just do for the sake of it,” Hollingshead says. “Like climbing a mountain: you do it because it’s hard…. The degree of sophistication of the reader doesn’t seem to relate to how distracting they find the older diction. It just seems to be an individual thing. What is most surprising to me is the range of people who aren’t having problems at all.”

Of course, it takes a while to tune yourself to the book’s frequency. Here’s a typical sentence from one of the Matthews sections: “It was Truelock who easily convinced him the Bible’s a vulgar and indecent history that fails to contain one solid or sensible argument, the New Testament in particular being a fabric of falsehood and deception of use only for the amusement of its absurdity, whereas for his part Truelock had been pregnant a quarter century with the Messiah, who now stood poised to erupt from his mouth, the only obstacle to this singular advantage to religion being the life of the King.” The passage certainly rambles, but it doesn’t seem strange to my ear anymore.

Hollingshead wagers that this response is common. “Some people,” he explains, “have a vague feeling that it sounds like Dickens.” Dickens, though Hollingshead emphasizes that he postdates the diction of Bedlam by about half a century, apparently still functions as a literary template for many modern readers. The idea that a particular prose style can communicate more about a historical period than overt representations, however, informed the distinction that Hollingshead makes between Bedlam and conventional historical fiction.

“The difficulty with historical fiction is that it tends to be over-descriptive,” he says. “There’s a terrific impulse to describe the way things were. That tends to make the writing heavy and slow.” So, rather than indulge in detailed depictions of the physical environment, architecture, fashion or furniture, Hollingshead consciously chose to make the language convey the time. His decision to focus on linguistics means that, in the few points where he does delve into description—as in the scene where Margaret, lacking more appropriate clothing, visits her husband in the asylum dressed in her “riding habit”—the images take a vivid hold in the reader’s mind.

Ironically, the style also creates a sense of heightened engagement with the present, immersing the reader in both the language and the labyrinthine complexity in two-century-old political intrigue and resulting in two distinct impressions: first, that the potentially illegitimate incarceration of political foes is a well-worn strategy, and second, that the historical novel is a crafty venue for a critique of the contemporary world. But Hollingshead says that wasn’t his motivation. “Any contemporary author is going to be a product of the contemporary scene,” he says, “so things [with contemporary relevance] are bound to come up. So at a certain point, parallels arise. The persecution of Republicans in the 18th century has parallels with that of the Communists in the 1950s, with those today who express antiwar sentiments, those likely to be seen as those hostile to government interests today in the United States…. Those things, they just came up in the telling of this particular story. I didn’t avoid them. Once they came up, I tried to do them justice. I didn’t set up to tell that sort of story, but the connections are there. The connections are there, I hope, for the reader to find.”

Hollingshead’s previous novel, The Healer, also involved a central character suffering from what you might call a “deviant” mental state. (The heroine in The Healer was an ecstatic.) “In this work,” Hollingshead says, “it’s not insanity that interests me, and not insanity as such. It’s the politics of treatment that interests me and… the power of love [between the protagonists]. When I published The Healer, I remember telling this to an agent at one point. He said, ‘Well, why are you writing about a visionary?’ I said the same thing that I say about Matthews: I’m not interested in the fact that she’s a visionary. I’m not interested in Matthews because he’s mad. To the extent that the reader is sympathetic… with a visionary or a mad character, the reader has access to a point of view from which the more common way of being in the world, the received ideas, the accepted opinions, the so-called normal way of being in the world looks pretty strange. And that’s what I’m after.”

Jay Smith, “Hollingshead’s Chronicles,” Vue Magazine, No. 466 ( September 23-29, 2004). Pp. 13, 18.