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Submitted Literature

The Secret Scripture

By Sebastian Barry


Stunningly written novel involving intertwining narratives of Roseanne, a woman locked in and institution for so long that no one can quite remember her age, and the doctor in charge of her release from long-term asylum care who is also trying to survive the loss of his wife.  This novel is a mediation on memory – who remembers and how, the accuracy of aging memory – and on loneliness and loss.  For Roseanne, her testimony is crucial; telling her life story through secret written narrative is her last task before dying.  These remnants of memory revealed through testimony stand as crucial for both preventing future injustice and for Roseanne’s sense of having a place in the world which she has been excluded from for so long.  A beautiful commentary of the historical treatment of women (in this case in Ireland but all over Europe) who were locked away for ‘immoral’ behaviour.

Key Themes:

  • Bereavement
  • History of Psychiatry
  • Institutional Abuses
  • Revealing Reads

Significant Quotes / Pages

14 – “For inmates I should write patients.  But as the place was constructed in the late eighteenth century as a charitable institution for the ‘healthful asylum and superior correction of wounded seats of thought’ the word inmate does always spring to mind.  How healthful and how superior can only now be guessed.  Actually in the mid nineteenth century there was a period of great enlightenment in the asylums, under the revolutionary ideas of various doctors, when strait jackets were used sparingly, a good diet was deemed wise, and plenty of exercise and stimulation of thought.  Which was a great advance on the practice of Bedlam with its roaring beasts in chains on the floors.  Somehow it all got worse again afterwards, and no sensitive person would choose to be the historian of the Irish asylums in the first part of the last century, with its clitoridectomies, immersions, and injections.  The last century being ‘my’ century, since I was fifty-five when it turned, and it is difficult wholly to give one’s heart and attention to a new century at that age.  Or so I found.  And find.  Nearly sixty-five now, alas.”

15 – “So, we are to go sometime.  I am obliged therefore  under the new laws to assess whatever of the patients can be put back into the community (whatever that is, O Lord), and exactly what category of patient each other patient is.  Many of them will be shocked even by new décor, modern plaster walls, good insulation and heating.  The very moaning of the wind in the corridors, even on still days – how is that? possibly a vacuum created by heat and cold in different areas of the hospital – will be missed as the tiny background music of their dreams and ‘madnesses’.  I am sure.  Those poor old boys in black suits made by the hospital tailor long ago, who are not so much mad as homeless and ancient, and who live along the rooms of the oldest west wing, like soldiers of some forgotten Peninsular or Indian War, will not know themselves outside this lost ground of Roscommon.”

54-5 – “Perhaps in later years I heard versions of that night that didn’t fit my own memory of it, but all the same, there was always one grand constant, that I had stopped in my path to fetch Fr Gaunt and told my tale to the Free State soldiers, either at my father’s bidding or by my own instincts.  The fact that I never saw the soldiers, never spoke to them, never even thought of doing so – for would that not have put my father possibly in further danger? – is in the informal history of Sligo neither here nor there.  For history as far as I can see is not the arrangement of what happens, in sequence and in truth, but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of withering truth.

History needs to be mightily inventive about human life because bare life is an accusation against man’s dominion of the earth.

My own story, anyone’s own story, is always told against me, even what I myself am writing here, because I have no heroic history to offer.  There is no difficulty not of my own making.  The heart and the soul, so beloved of God, are both filthied up by residence here, how can we avoid it?  These seem not my thoughts at all, but maybe are borrowed out of my old readings of Sir Thomas Browne.  But they feel as if they are mine.  They sound in my head like my own belling thoughts.  It is strange.  I suppose therefore God is the connoisseur of filthied hearts and souls, and can see the old, first pattern in them, and cherish them for that.

He had better be in my case, or I may dwell with the devil shortly.”



Reference: Sebastian, Barry. 2008. The Secret Scripture. London: Faber and Faber, 2008


- Charley Baker
Date Review Submitted: Friday 20th March 2009