Dangerous Asylums: Stories from Denbigh Mental Hospital told by Leading Welsh Writers. Stories by Glenda Beagan, Carys Bray, Rob Mimpriss, A. L. Reynolds, Manon Steffan Ros, Simon Thirsk, Elaine Walker, Gee and David Williams. Edited by Rob Mimpriss. Bangor: North Wales Mental Health Research Project, 2016.
A successful London Welshman after the Great War tells his grand-daughter of the madness that infects the family blood. A former inmate at Denbigh Asylum throws herself under a train. A woman made notorious by killing her own child prepares herself for release, and a businesswoman touring a derelict hospital is troubled by the lingering horrors of its past.
When Denbigh Mental Hospital was opened in 1848, it was considered one of the most progressive and humane institutions in Wales, yet it was dogged by over-crowding and rumours of abuse. Now some of the leading writers in Wales tell its story, drawing on the records of patients long dead to give us a portrait of mental illness and care during the Victorian and Edwardian era.
‘In this exemplary collaboration between medical science and imagination, lives preserved in official records, in the language and diagnoses of their times, are restored not just to light, but to humanity and equality. This anthology is a resurrection.’
‘In an area still notable for conjecture, experiment, reversals, and slow pace is joined this book’s rich imaginings.’
Nigel Jarrett, Wales Arts Review
The North Wales Mental Health Research Project was established by Prof. David Healy and other clinicians and academics to explore the history of mental illness and treatment in north Wales, with support from Merfyn Jones, Hywel Williams, Ieuan Wyn Jones and others. Now they are joined by award-winning writers, Glenda Beagan, Carys Bray, Manon Steffan Ros, Simon Thirsk, Gee Williams, and others, in eight short stories that bring the hospital and its patients to vivid and compelling life.
‘Hart’s Reach.’ In Brush with Fate: Voices from Wales. By Fflur Dafydd, Tristan Hughes, Nigel Jarrett, Rob Mimpriss, Rachel Trezise and others. Arabic translations by Hala Salah Eldin Hussein. Cairo: Albawtaka, 2014.
The surgery had been a watermill in the days when coracles were still common on the river, and had housed captured SS officers for a time during the war. Touring Wales in the summer of 1957 Hart’s father had leant his bicycle against its ivyed gable wall, and glancing over the head of his companion had glimpsed the slick descent of an otter down the bank. The details solidified and settled in his mind: the pride of his recent graduation, a falconer launching his kestrel over distant fields, and the quiet fecundity of the river. Years later, as an orphaned and wealthy man, when his memories of that companion had blurred to an impression of white socks and a yellow dress, he had remembered the otter with perfect clarity, and had bought both the mill for his surgery, and the boathouse half a mile upstream on the other bank for his home.
What mattered, Walter Hart later explained to his schoolboy son, was that he had reached that moment when a life becomes clear – not with the girl, though her name was Miller, but with the otter and the kestrel and the ivyed wall: his world needing him, waiting for him to claim it. And Hart was expected to repeat these triumphs, to claim mastery of some girl, some wilderness, but the dying surgery must have been the wrong wilderness, Rita the wrong girl, and in the end his father had resented his willingness to help. He rowed with slow, patient strokes while the gors echoed to the sound of thunder and the hills disappeared behind rain. As he drew parallel with the surgery the man was sitting on the veranda with his map and the woman was trying its locked door, and Hart turned his blunt prow towards the bank and dragged the boat onto land.
Hala Salah Eldin Hussein has translated work by Dave Eggers, Nadine Gordimer, Kazuo Ishiguro, Edward P. Jones, Jhumpa Lahiri, Doris Lessing and others into Arabic, for publication by Albawtaka Review. This fourth print anthology by Albawtaka was published with the support of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture.
‘The Ladies and the Baggage: Raymond Carver’s Suppressed Research and the Apologetic Short Story.’ In Creative Writing Studies: Practice, Research and Pedagogy. Edited by Graëme Harper and Jeri Kroll. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2008.
It is curious that these statements take the tone of apologies, since few novelists would seek to excuse their use of long narratives by an excess of wealth or leisure. As apologies they are also inappropriate to these two writers’ achievements, since their stories remain among the finest the form has yet produced. But one notices in both writers the guardedness of the explanation, the ‘perhaps,’ and one may suspect that more lies behind these writers’ choice of form than they are willing or able to say. Kate Roberts’s comments about craft and inspiration are hard to reconcile with the stories themselves, and Raymond Carver’s pedagogic essay, ‘On Writing,’ offers few original insights, consisting largely of slogans and quotations which he invites us to record on three-by-five cards.
But perhaps ‘The Student’s Wife’ reveals most clearly Raymond Carver’s thinking about the short story form. For it is, very clearly, one of his most graceful designs: covering the hours between night and dawn, and with one major and one minor character, it nevertheless conveys a picture of their life together and a sense of the world they inhabit. Thematically, it is one of Carver’s most far-reaching, for the protagonist’s solitude and insomnia, her fear of the sunrise, and the brevity and ambiguity of her prayer encourage us to read the story as an exploration of ontological suffering. But it is also thoughtfully modelled on a Chekhov story, ‘The Student,’ and the protagonist’s experiences recall the main themes in Frank O’Connor’s study of the short story form, The Lonely Voice. My burden, presented by a detailed close reading of ‘The Student’s Wife,’ is that, rather than explaining or defending his use of an unpopular form through his critical or pedagogic writing, Carver – and other writers like him – may encode such an apologetic within his creative practice. Moreover, this apologetic could not otherwise be expressed without embarrassment, for it refers to the less considered aspects of O’Connor’s argument: to the experience of ‘religion [as] the aspect of depth in the totality of the human spirit’ to use Paul Tillich’s (1959: 7-8) phrase, on his experience of religion as ‘ultimate concern’.
I am the author of three short story collections.
For His Warriors,
originally published by Gwasg y Bwthyn, Caernarfon, with Welsh Books Council support, now join
Prayer at the End
in revised editions at Cockatrice Books.
My anthology of fiction, Dangerous Asylums: Stories from Denbigh Mental Hospital Told by Leading Welsh Writers, including work by Gee and David Williams, Glenda Beagan, Carys Bray, Simon Thirsk and others, was published by the North Wales Mental Health Research Project, October 2016.
I am the translator of Going South: The Stories of Richard Hughes Williams (Cockatrice, 2015),
Hallowe’en in the Cwm: The Stories of Glasynys (Cockatrice, forthcoming), and
A Book of Three Birds, the seventeenth-century classic by Morgan Llwyd (Cockatrice, forthcoming). In addition, I have translated fiction by D. Gwenallt Jones, Angharad Tomos, and Manon Steffan Ros.