As we reach the end of Mental Health Awareness Week, Ben Webb looks at how the historical treatment of mental illness is considered in Sebastian Faulks’ ambitious novel.
The recent controversy surrounding the pressures facing the University’s Wellbeing Centre reminded me of Sebastian Faulks’ Human Traces. The (fairly lengthy) novel explores the very early days of psychiatry, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The narrative follows the fortunes and setbacks that befall its two central characters, Thomas Midwinter and Jacques Rebière. These two naïve young men set out together on a lifelong quest to attempt to find a cure for madness, an aim which soon proves impossible to achieve. The reader follows their journey and witnesses the many ways in which the previous assumptions of these two characters are called into question as they become professional ‘mad-doctors’ and eventually set up their own lunatic asylum in the Austrian mountains.
The novel is epic in its scope, spanning over five decades and encompassing English country houses, poor rural Brittany, California and even a trip to the centre of Africa, a region depicted as wonderfully exciting and remote. This temporal and geographical range is surely a reflection of how the notion of insanity is one which is common to so much of humanity, regardless of time or location.
Terms such as ‘Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder’ and ‘Post-Traumatic Stress’ are relatively well known to most modern readers, and are fortunately now seen as a fairly routine occurrence, but just a century ago such symptoms still flummoxed much of the medical establishment. Through the depiction of the horror and appalling suffering endured in enormous Victorian lunatic asylums it is clear how the treatment of those deemed ‘mad’ has similarly undergone such a radical transformation in modern times.
The novel demonstrates that even in the modern world, the treatment of the mentally unwell can always be improved. One of the most memorable parts of the novel depicts the recent qualified Dr Midwinter note that an admission to a lunatic asylum is not ‘mad’ at all, but just blind.
Human Traces also raises another question; whether we are all, in some ways, ‘mad’. The reader sees Dr Midwinter, a quick-witted and passionate Cambridge graduate admit to occasionally hearing voices. Even the previously serene Dr Rebière is described anxiously by his wife during the closing stages of the novel as ‘a little eccentric’. Faulks powerfully suggests in Human Traces that being mad is a phenomenon that is common to all of us. This is a message that is, perhaps, worth bearing in mind as we come to the end of Mental Health Awareness Week.
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