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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 September 2005, 23:06 GMT 00:06 UK
Literature's love affair with the mind
By Nick Triggle
BBC News health reporter

Some of the greatest writers struggled covering mental health
The latest novel from Sebastian Faulks leaves behind his traditional themes of love and war to tackle schizophrenia - or madness as it was then called - at the end of the Victorian era.

Human Traces follows the lives of two psychiatrist friends at a time when scientists had just started to unravel the workings of the mind.

Literary reviews have described it as Faulks' most ambitious novel, pointing out the painstaking research that must have gone into the 600-page book.

And the conclusion - another best-seller to match the success of his earlier novels Birdsong and Charlotte Gray.

Faulks himself had admitted it was a "big project".

Human mind

He said: "My aim as a novelist is, by examining these themes, to see what they can tell us about all of humanity and the way in which all our minds work in sickness and in health."

But the book is by no means the first to tackle such complex issues.

Even back in William Shakespeare's day the topic was being featured in the theatres across the land and some of the Bard's most famous characters, such as King Lear and Lady Macbeth, were driven to mental illness by grief and ambition.

"People have always been interested in it," said BJ Sokol, professor of English literature at Goldsmith's College in London.

"I think the thing is that the extremes can illustrate the more typical. They illuminate a book and writers know that.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon) - The Whitbread Prize winning novel is told through the eyes of a 15-year-old with autism, and was praised for the accurate way it portrayed the condition
Yellow Wallpaper (Charlotte Perkins Gilman) - Semi autobiographical book about a married woman who has a nervous breakdown because of her controlling and dominating husband
Only Human (Susie Boyt) - Tells the story of marriage guidance counsellor who has to wrestle with her own demons

"There have been plenty of examples going back, and they have continued on until today."

Michele Roberts, a Booker prize-nominated author and judge of mental health charity Mind's annual literary prize, said what had changed was the labels given to mental health.

"I think writers have always been interested in the workings of the mind. To some extent any decent writer is going to look at the inner self.

"It is just that 100 years ago we did not have terms such as mental health problems.

"Instead, writers explored sadness and grief and how humans deal with them."

She said as times have changed novelists have begun to tackle particular areas, such as autism, as exemplified by Mark Haddon's Whitbread Prize winner The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

"I think it reflects the changes in society," she said. "A lot of women are bringing up children with autism so it is not surprising authors are writing about it."

Nervous breakdown

But Ms Roberts, who is also professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia, added it was some of the less celebrated books which provided the best examples of writing about mental health problems.

She cited Susie Boyt's Only Human, which was short-listed for the Mind award this year and follows the experiences of a marriage guidance counsellor, and Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the semi-autobiographical 1899 novel of a married woman's nervous breakdown.

And such accurate portrayals are essential if society is going to look beyond some of the stereotypes seen in TV dramas.

Sebastian Faulks
Faulks' new novel deals with psychiatry in the late 19th century

Paul Corry, of mental heath charity Rethink, said: "Literature can have a huge impact. Sebastian Faulks' novels have sold millions so you can see the impact this could have.

"He certainly seems to have done the research, he spent a long time talking to a woman with schizophrenia that we put him in contact with and I think that comes through in his book by all accounts.

"In the arts it is all too easy to fall into the stereotype of portraying people with mental health problems, and in particular schizophrenia, as dangerous and violent.


"But that ignores the complexities of the condition. In a book you do get more space than other mediums, but it is still not a lot when you consider these conditions develop over a lifetime."

He said one book often given as an example of a poor attempt at tackling the issue was American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis.

He said the plot where a Wall Street trader goes on a killing spree, whether real or imaginary, was the typical "old psycho storyline".

But it is not just recent books that have failed to give an accurate picture of problems of the mind.

Enduring Love (Ian McEwan) - One of the author's best-selling books was made into a film, but it has been criticised for its portrayal of de Clerambault's syndrome
American Psycho (Brett Easton Ellis) - Another novel that was put on the silverscreen, depicting the violent excesses of a Wall Street trader. By the end of the book it is not clear whether the happenings have been real or imagined, but the linking of violence and delusion is damaging, critics claim
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson) - One of the classics of literature, but the 19th century novel has damaged the understanding of mental health as the portrayal of protagonist Dr Jekyll gives the impression that a person can swap consciously between two different personalities

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of mental health charity Sane, said some of the greatest authors in history have struggled.

"If you look at our most famous writers, many of them tackled madness and failed. Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Shakespeare all have characters who are troubled but it is never explained.

"Take Jane Eyre, for example. The madness of Mrs Rochester is clear for all to see, but Bronte never bothers to dig deeper and tell us why she is like she is and what she is going through. These authors seem to struggle to grasp what is happening."

But Ms Wallace said potentially the most damaging book to the understanding of mental health has been Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.

"It really made people misunderstand the whole issue, and still does today," she said. "The idea that some can deliberately change their personality like that, has made people think they are to blame. It has been very damaging."

Instead, Ms Wallace believes poets have a better track record in describing mental illness.

The US poet Sylvia Plath, who was married to Ted Hughes, is the obvious example, said Ms Wallace.

Although her most remarkable portrayal was perhaps in her semi-autobiographical novel the Bell Jar - Plath herself suffered from severe depression, eventually committing suicide.

Ms Wallace said: "William Blake, Lord Byron, they all wrote about emotions, depression. I think perhaps the medium of poetry lends itself better. Everything can be that bit more muddied."


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