As part of the Embroidered Minds Collaboration, Leslie Forbes wrote an amazing imagining of the intersection between the world of Britain’s first neurological hospital in Queen Square, London and the family of William Morris the artistic and political polymath. In the 1860s, the Morrises lived at his workshop in a house only a few steps away from the Hospital. Forbes’s mystery novel Embroidered Minds of the Morris Women represents a creative exploration of imagined encounters between a neurologist Dr Q and William’s daughter Jenny who suffered from epilepsy.
A major theme of the book is the conspiracy of silence, likened to the neurological language impairment aphasia, that then as now, surrounds the stigmatized condition of epilepsy. Forbes suffered from epilepsy and aphasia and was herself a patient at Queen Square. She brought to this fiction her own poignant insights into this experience. She wrote this novel intending it to appear in installments like most good Victorian novels such as those by Charles Dickens, George Elliot or Wilkie Collins. Sadly she died after a severe seizure in the summer of 2016, only having published the first part. As it stands, it nevertheless provides a vivid picture of the Victorian experience of epilepsy in recounting the feelings and thoughts of Jenny and the medical views of Dr Q.
One source of inspiration for the character of Dr Q was Victor Bazire. He was a native of Mauritius who had studied medicine in London and Paris, joining the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic in Queens Square as assistant physician in 1864. He was considered by his colleagues as a rising star, when he died suddenly from a cerebral haemorrhage three years later at the young age of 31. Bazire’s most important legacy was in the extensive annotations he contributed to a chapter on Aphasia which translated from Armand Trousseau's Lectures on clinical medicine, delivered at the Hotel-Dieu, Paris. Although she informed her novel with extensive research from the neurological texts of the day, Forbes found the fact that Bazire had become a ghost by the time her story is set in Queen Square gave her imagination freedom.
For more on Victorian Neurologists and how their investigations of patients contributed to our understanding of thought and language and the workings of the brain see Prof Lorch’s publications at www.bbk.ac.uk/linguistics/our-staff/academic-staff/marjorie-lorch