As I was heading towards the end of Margaret Foster’s “Private Papers” (see my previous post) I stumbled upon reference to a fictitious account of the life of Heinrich Hoffman during the period when he was doctor in charge of an asylum. Dr Heinrich Hoffman wrote the popular “Struwwelpeter” (Shock-headed Peter) a set of cautionary tales warning of the fate of children who literally played with fire, were Stuck-in-a-book or wouldn’t eat their soup. My mother, born in 1926, was given a copy of the English translation of this wonderfully illustrated volume which was one of the books that my sisters and I inherited from her. The book was published in 1845, over eighty years before my mother was born and I think I understood that it was not of our time but I probably enjoyed it all the more for that very reason. By the time I was born in the late fifties I’m sure that moral tales were not what they once had been, even if they existed at all. So Johnny Head in Air and Fidgety Phillip felt as though they friends of Mrs Do As You Would Be Done By who I believed to be a personal friend of Mamgee, my maternal grandmother. The engraved and coloured-in illustrations thrilled me and there there was no end to the number of times I could have the book read to me whilst I soaked up the pictures.
Once I knew this book, 98 Reasons for Being, by Clare Dudman, existed I had to have it and so I ventured out to Waterstones, in the Bentall centre, Kingston, at lunchtime and luckily they had a copy sitting on the shelf. So far it seems to be tale of poor Hannah who does not talk, rather than poor Harriet who played with matches. Dr Hoffman is asked to take in young Hannah who is probably suffering from severe depression but has been labelled as suffering from Nymphomania. We meet her as she enters the asylum and Hoffman decides upon the best course of treatment.
This is yet another book of alternate accounts. Life in the asylum is recounted with particular reference to the treatment of Hannah. In between are glimpses into Hannah’s thoughts. Far from being simple, her thoughts appear articulate and we begin to see something of her life before the asylum. The treatment she receives encroaches into Hannah’s private world but actions and people are transformed. I may have reached out for this fictitious account for the wrong reasons but I will continue to read because it stands up as a book in its own right even once the Struwwelpeter link is laid to rest.