You recollect your three children, two of them taken. Margaret, two days after her fourth birthday, and a boy, delivered early, who never breathed. Only Annabella lives now, with her aunt and uncle at Sorn. In the low-ceilinged cottage beside the river Ayr. Elisabeth writes that Annabella makes good progress with her studies as you did too, in your girlhood, when your father was schoolmaster there.
Your children did not die, they simply disappeared from the temporal realm. They are here presently if others could but see them.
You are admitted to the asylum. The physicians and nurses, who tend you and measure you, are bound by the body. They know nothing of the soul. When you talk in rhyme and make merry with the spirits of your children, the matron bids you calm yourself. She advises you sit quietly with knitting and needlework. When you ask for whisky, she asserts none is kept here and counsels against opiating on your current constitution, predisposed as it is to insanity. She tells you to do all you can to guard against another attack of mania. The matron disapproves of cursing and swearing but does not understand your behaviour is compelled by unseen forces.
You have not slept well, and your tongue is foul this morning. The pine floor is polished and shines, striped soft like a tiger’s fur by the sunlight. From the window you watch as a cluster of gold finches alight on a stocky tree, flecks of yellow against the wintered bark. They peck at tiny buds that have appeared on the fragile branches. You can scarcely imagine the bursting into bloom spring will offer up. The heart-stopping marvel of it, although it happens every year.
With Elisabeth, you visited an exhibition in Rothesay. At the sea front, a wooden pavilion was erected on Guildford Square. Bills were posted along the hoardings, boasting entertainments for the summer months. Each evening the promenade was a jostle of pleasure-seekers.
Your husband, George, was busy with the works to strengthen the pier and breakfasted early six days a week. He left you two sisters to organise the household and mind Annabella. George worked late each evening, meetings at the parish council and such. Clutching at you, he fumbled his way into bed, steeped in spirits and clumsy at love.
One evening, as the sun dipped behind Skeoch Woods, you and Elizabeth walked down the hill from the squat house on Argyle Terrace towards the centre of town and paid the entrance fee at the door of the pavilion. You took your seats on one of the benches that fanned out from the stage on three sides and watched as a ventriloquist conversed with an unseen companion. A small man, with waxed moustaches and a pallid aspect, the ventriloquist spoke to a seemingly empty spot on the opposite side of the stage. He asked questions and the empty spot answered him in a high-pitched tone. He told jokes and the empty spot laughed in an entirely different voice. Elisabeth read the printed programme, smoothed it out on her knee and whispered to you that the ventriloquist was creating an illusion with his voice.
For some days you suffer from constipation. Whether because of a change of diet or due to the absence of intoxicants, no-one is completely sure. Nevertheless, when your bowels are moved, your temperament begins to improve.
You are cheerful and good humoured. The matron praises you for your moderation of language. She takes you to the gallery where the female patients congregate during the day. This room stretches along the south facing part of the building and the windows all along its length let the light flood in. You choose a book by Bulwer-Lytton from a shelf and sit in a corner, where you thumb the pages and scrutinise your fellow inmates.
Dr Mackay, one of the senior physicians, attends you, he is concerned that you retain a disturbance of mind and wishes to alleviate your distress. In your discussions with him, you praise the medical profession generally, impressing upon him your view that they will ultimately achieve perfection and be able to preserve the body alive and prevent people from dying. This is the case with the spirit, so why should it not also be with the body. He will not answer. Perhaps he cannot.
Some weeks pass and when Dr Mackay enters the gallery, you rise from your chair and slam your door against him. Refuse to come out to see him. You tell the nurse the physician is in the habit of changing his shape. You tell the nurse the matron is really a man; you have seen her in the corridors at night wearing men’s clothes.
You are no longer permitted to read. Though you keep busy with sewing and the matron lets you sit with some of the other patients in the back parlour.
At the height of summer, there appeared to be no real night to be had on Bute. You lay in bed in want of sleep, watching light creep jagged at the borders of blinds and through the plushest curtains. Your skin burned as if you had fever and you took the whisky only to cool yourself sufficiently and find rest.
The very night of the ventriloquist’s performance, you began to hear voices addressing you on your return home. You asked Elisabeth if she heard them too, but she said there was nothing there, you were imagining things. At first, you heard the voices of the people he had manifested. On retiring to bed, you began to imitate the cries of these invisibles and fancied you glimpsed familiar faces amongst them.
The following day, you mentioned the voices again to Elisabeth – told her you were sure they were the voices of your children – but she scolded you and said not to persist with such nonsense. Afterwards, although the little boy and little girl hurried along at your side, you only winked and kept your conversations with them for bedtime.
George remarked you dreamed too often of your dead children, that it was not the done thing to sing and laugh with them. You drank more whisky to dampen down your visions. When George locked the cellar, you beat your fists on his chest and scratched and clawed at your own skin until he relented and allowed you a glass or two. You gave him the choice of a submissive wife or a mad one; he chose the former.
The matron brings you letters. One from Elisabeth and one from George. Your sister’s hand loops and slants forward, like an army charging into victory. Your husband makes his letters into boxed lines, guarded and unsure.
Elisabeth tells you Annabella is well and settled, plays happily with her cousins, and does not feel your absence too keenly. You recall the village, not as it is now, but how it looked when you and your brothers and sisters ran through it as children. The dirt streets around the church and shops and the grassy paths leading to the woods and the ruined castle.
You are, at first, discomfited when Dr Mackay expresses satisfaction that your monthlies regularly appear and cease after four or five days. You are expected to launder your own intimate items. Each day of bleeding, you wash and wring out the smears and stains of your womanhood. On dry days, the linen is pegged on rows in the drying green or wound up on pulleys in the washhouse when the rain starts up.
You are again permitted into the gallery and enjoy reading and talking there with the other patients. The matron remarks that, when devoid of curses, your cheerfulness and lively conversation is a tonic to those who suffer from melancholia. When you are stricken with a cold and full of catarrh, you take to your bed for three days, alternately shivering and sweating. Mrs Muir comes to your room in the afternoons and reads to you. Sometimes she brings a book of poetry and leaves it for you to take up later if you wish. When the nurse comes in the evening to draw down the blind, your children slip from the pages of Tennyson and curl sweetly in your arms.
The summer faded and Elisabeth returned to her husband at Sorn. Annabella began to attend the local school each morning and George was often away to the mainland. You endeavoured to apply yourself to household tasks but often found yourself in a strange room, the mending, or the polishing left unfinished in a different place.
No-one believed you when you told them how cruelly you were treated by your husband.
You told the minister George brought strange women into your bedroom, two or three at a time, but your suffering was dismissed and ridiculed. If he had been a farm labourer or a navvy, perhaps your claims would have been granted more credence.
The state of my wife’s mind is altered, George said, his head tilted in an imitation of sympathy. Poor lady, her mind’s burden is too much to bear. Hers is an unstable family, given to ravings and notions.
George told the medics of your brother David, that it was supposed he had contracted a brain fever that made him eccentric, vicious, and intemperate.
Hereditary, then, this madness.
One Friday evening, you attend a musical performance of Guy Mannering by Sir Walter Scott in the private theatre. It has been erected here for the amusement of patients and is, for all the world, just like the theatres one might visit in the city. Rows of wooden benches line the auditorium, and the medical staff conduct the patients to their seats like ushers, behaving as if everyone has alighted outside by coach, or on foot, a little merry, following a dinner engagement. You sit next to Mrs Muir and Mrs Simpson. The nurse has pinned up your hair and you are wearing a high-collared evening dress of pale green silk. You conduct yourself with perfect propriety during the performance and, in truth, enjoy the spectacle tremendously. It is a play with music, in which a child is stolen by smugglers and a wild gypsy woman tells of his fate and predicts his future. In the end, all is well; the boy, Harry, returned to his rightful home and his fortune restored.
You are tired the next day when the physician visits. You have not answered the letters from home. Choosing instead to walk in the grounds and along a path that runs the length of the burn. He asks you why you have not replied to your sister and your husband, and you whisper an answer in order that the spirits present cannot hear. The physician seems unconcerned about the spirits and more anxious that you are indicating others are party to the conversation. Madam, he says, smiling and duplicitous, there are only the two of us here.
A few nights after the exhibition on the promenade, the man, the ventriloquist, appeared in your bedroom, his reflection in the mirror of your dresser. You saw him distinctly and felt his power over you. He had designs against your virtue and had contrived, during George’s absence, to enter your apartment. You screamed and Elisabeth and Annabella came running along the landing.
There is a beautiful collection of encyclopaedias stacked among the shelves in the gallery. You locate the relevant volume and find an entry on ventriloquism. You discover the word comes from the Latin, venter and loqui, meaning speaking from the belly.
Far from being a mere entertainment, you read that ventriloquism was known in ancient worlds. There were practitioners who spoke in Hebrew and Egyptian and Greek. At the temple of Apollo, a priestess called Pythia conveyed messages from the Delphic Oracle. In the seventeenth century, Charles I employed his own King’s Whisperer.
It occurs to you that you may be a conduit to the spirit world like these old prophets. Perhaps the promenade ventriloquist suspected you were more than a trickster like himself and was bent on silencing you.
The leaves are beginning to turn on the trees when George arrives, and the superintendent meets with both of you in his office. Your husband wishes to take you home to be cared for there, but Dr Mackay counsels against it. Your mind is still full of delusions, and you have not yet relinquished the fancy that spirits summon you on all sides.
The superintendent asks you whether you wish to go home. It is true that you have said repeatedly you feel no good can be done for you here. Whether any good can be done for you at home, you cannot know.
The sunset glows burnt orange over the Kilpatrick hills when you are relieved and taken into the care of your husband. Ensconced within the carriage, you hear the tick-tack sound of wheels on the cobbled driveway and the high-pitched bark of the foxes.
The archive extract I was given for Writing the Asylum proved the starting point for my story, Invisible Familiars. These were case notes for Agnes, a female patient who was in Gartnavel for just short of a year in the 1840s. Although the notes contain a lot of detail in relation to Agnes’s life, the period she spent in the asylum amounted to a tiny snapshot. I was also aware that, unless admitted to institutions like asylums and prisons, most ordinary people’s lives result in very few detailed records.
Agnes was given a diagnosis of mania when she entered the asylum. This was her second attack; her first attack had happened a few months previously. She recovered from the first attack after being cared for at home. There is a through-line from mania to manic-depression to bi-polar. Although the terms used to describe this condition have changed over a couple of centuries, the symptoms have remained remarkably constant and include, or included, euphoria, hyperactivity, and flights of ideas, as well as increased sexual activity or ideation, and sense of humour. These symptoms seem to align with the way Agnes is perceived by the medical staff in Gartnavel.
It interested me that Agnes existed before she entered the asylum, and she appeared to leave and carry on with her life. It’s remarkable to access this level of detail about someone but I was conscious that it covered a short period of time and was filtered through other people’s perspectives. To get some balance, I wanted to find out more about Agnes’s life outwith the asylum.
The first rule of genealogy is to begin at the end. A death certificate, certainly in Scotland post-1855, tends to give more information than the records made at birth or marriage. I had both Agnes’s maiden and married names, so it was relatively easy to find out where and why she died. Then another mystery presented itself. She died in Gartnavel Royal Asylum in 1879 but I could find no further records or listing for her between 1843 and 1879 – either inside or outside the asylum. Agnes was widowed in 1851 and her surviving child, Annabella, was the sole beneficiary of her father’s will.
Armed with the names of her parents and husband, I decided to search for Agnes prior to her admittance to Gartnavel in 1842. I discovered she was born in Sorn, Ayrshire in 1795, to a schoolmaster and his wife, and had gone on to marry her husband, George, on Bute in 1830. George was wealthy enough to pay for Agnes’s care in Gartnavel and to leave a decent legacy to his daughter. Annabella went on to marry a minister in Lesmahagow in her thirties but had no children. The line stops there. Agnes, George, and Annabella all crop up in a smattering of family trees on genealogy websites, but Agnes’s death isn’t accurately recorded in any of them.
Once I’d done a sweep of Agnes’s family history, I went back to the case notes to try to interpret the information from a different angle. What had brought Agnes to the asylum? She was diagnosed with mania, but were the underlying reasons for her mental health condition discovered? Reading through the notes, she appears to have been kindly treated, shown respect and dignity, and allowed to express herself and vocalise her feelings. However, there was no real curiosity about the source of her illness, nothing akin to modern treatment like cognitive behavioural therapy or psychodynamic counselling. There was only encouragement to be quiet, to rest and recuperate. Of course, that doesn’t mean the causes of her illness weren’t talked about, just that they weren’t routinely recorded in the case notes.
The reference to the ventriloquist’s performance is essentially a footnote in the records from Gartnavel. It is written either at the same time as Agnes leaves the asylum or not long afterwards. It is an account of an anecdote related by the superintendent’s wife. Agnes had told her that, shortly after seeing the show, she had begun to hear voices, including those of her dead children. Perhaps it was a mechanism that she used to come to terms with her grief and trauma. I could see the attraction of blurring the line between the living and the dead. There’s also a prevalent idea that ventriloquism can threaten someone’s sanity if those disembodied voices gain the upper hand in the relationship. It’s a trope that’s long been used in books and films. For me, it recalled one of the stories in the 1945 movie, Dead of Night, where Michael Redgrave’s dummy manipulates events and ultimately drives him mad.
I made a couple of decisions when I began to write Invisible Familiars. The first was to use only first names for Agnes and her family so they aren’t immediately identifiable. I’ve written fiction based on real events where I’ve wound a lot of detail about characters’ lives into the story. I wanted to simplify things this time. The second was to experiment with the use of second person narrative. I wanted to centre Agnes in the reader’s mind and allow her more emotional depth than that conveyed by the objective tone and content of the records.
As a footnote, once I had a final draft of the story and this commentary, I stumbled on some records that partially solves the mystery of where Agnes was after her release from Gartnavel in 1843. I found some files that contained death records for patients and there was a listing for Agnes that tallied with the death certificate that I had found in the statutory records. It stated that she was re-admitted later in 1843 and remained in the Asylum until her death. She was a private patient so perhaps her daughter Annabella continued to pay for her care. The archives seem to be peppered with some or all the case notes for the remaining 36 years of Agnes’s life; it would be interesting to search for them and interpret what’s there.
[Patient record for Agnes Simpson, HB13/5/15]