Tom Bedlam, by George Hagen
I haven’t read any Charles Dickens, which is not really to my credit – but that doesn’t stop me thinking that George Hagen’s Tom Bedlam owes him a great debt. British history acts as the backdrop for the life of our eponymous hero, who starts his life in a slum tenement next to a factory. His father left when he was a baby, so his mother, a tirelessly optimistic Christian, brings him up alone. Tom’s first experience of the harshness of real life comes when his actor father comes back and steals his mother’s savings. We meet many characters who will be returned to at various stages of the book, including Tom’s best friend Oscar, and Oscar’s little sister Audrey. In a twist of magical realism, their youngest brother, known at ‘the Orfling’, is a baby who doesn’t seem to want to age, even as his siblings grow up around him.
It’s after his mother dies that Tom’s odyssey starts – with an English public school education, complete with bullies, hare-brained masters and a very funny cook who is perpetually setting herself on fire and losing things in the soup. Tom shows himself to be unwilling to bow down to the bullies, and befriends fellow outsider Arthur Pigeon. After an affecting tragedy, Tom has to leave under a cloud. Fulfliling his ambition to become a doctor, he studies medicine in Edinburgh, where he meets his wife to be – now known as Dr Tom Chapel, he elopes with her to South Africa.
South Africa marks a new phase – Tom and Lizzy start a family, he serves in the Boer War and then settles down to private practice. The life of a young family slows things down for a while, and the narrative loses a bit of momentum. Tom’s determination to avoid the mistakes of his parents, and of his own earlier life, doesn’t always have the results he expects, especially after the death of his wife from malaria deprives him of her wise counsel.
Once the children grow older, and look to pursue their own dreams, that’s when things start to get interesting again. With Charity enfolded in the sinister religious brotherhood of the Pendletons, Iris a travelling actress, in the company of a now grown Orfling, and the youngest, Arthur, enlisted in the army that’s being ground to pieces on the battlefields of the Western Front, Tom returns to his native London to try and re-unite his family. The closing stages of the book recover some of the momentum lost during the middle section, as not only the children but Tom’s father, old friends and old enemies are brought together in some surprising ways.
Tom Bedlam is an enjoyable book which very effectively evokes the scale of changes that took place in Britain and her empire over the course of one man’s life, while maintaining a very human perspective on its characters. The Dickensian elements – the larger-than-life characters, the twists and revelations – are the icing on the cake.