Writers, Insanity & Mercury
We all know you have to be crazy to be a writer – although this can range from mild derangement to being as a mad as a hatter.
It goes with the territory: as writers we spend large amounts of time with our heads in
alternative imaginary worlds that those around us just don’t realise are there. Sometimes these worlds take over our lives, demanding more of our focus than that bothersome existence real world where our nearest and dearest are trying to get our attention.
To be a writer you’ve got to be obsessive and more than a bit bloody-minded. After all, writing a novel involves many, many hours of solitary work – with no real idea if anyone else is going to be remotely interested in the tens of thousands of words we’ve produced. But we do it anyway. We have to.
That’s because being a writer isn’t so much a profession as a calling: even if it’s the voices in our own head that are telling us what to do.
So, with that in mind, I was extremely interested to learn about the history of insanity in my family. And, no, I’m not joking.
My mother has been doing some research into her side of the tree and recently got hold of two fascinating death certificates. It turns out that her great-grandfather, John Chilcott, was fished out of the Thames (drowned) in 1887. It seems he’d previously been living separately from his wife and children because of his irrational behaviour.
At the time of the 1891 census, one of his sons was living in the Metropolitan Lunatic Asylum at Godstone, Surrey. Now, I could claim great-great uncle Charles was on the staff but that would be a lie. In fact he died there five years later: aged just 39.
The truth is both of my mad ancestors were hatters.
Now, there’s some debate about the origin of the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’: its use predates hat making as a recognised trade. However, Mad Hatters Disease was a well-known condition caused by the use of mercury in felt-making for hats.
The outward effects of mercury poisoning can include: red fingers, toes and cheeks; loss of hearing; bleeding from the ears and mouth; loss of appendages such as teeth, hair, and nails. And then there are the mental problems: ranging from lack of coordination and poor memory all the way up to mental disturbance and emotional confusion caused by severe neurological damage.
Learning about the fate of my ancestors makes me extremely glad I’m living now. Unless you were reasonably well-off, life back then was extremely hard. (Just look at the old parish registers to see how many children didn’t even reach their first birthday).
It’s also slightly strange to realise that two of my predecessors may have suffered from a malady so closely linked to a common euphemism for madness.
At least, I hope it was the mercury poisoning that was to blame. Because if not it could be in the genes. But then I suppose that might explain something…
Anyway, for a bit of light relief, here’s everyone’s favourite Mad Hatter, explaining more about how he got into the role: