My laptop banged against my thigh as I wove through crowds at Waterloo station in London. It was my first time back in England since finishing my doctorate five years before and I’d forgotten how many people crammed the city. I boarded the train and slid into a window seat with relief. I’d returned because of a footnote relating to Maud Praed, the daughter of nineteenth-century Australian novelist Rosa Praed. Rosa’s biographer had attempted to find Maud’s medical records by writing to the sanatorium in which Maud was placed in 1902, but she was told that patient records were destroyed after twenty-five years. After checking the database for the National Archives (which didn’t exist when the biographer wrote her book), I found that patient records for Holloway Sanatorium still existed.
As we pulled out of the city, I looked down on strips of narrow Victorian houses, then impossibly green fields lined with golden oaks. I counselled myself, again, that I wasn’t to get my hopes up. I disembarked at Woking and caught a taxi to the Surrey History Centre, a plain, municipal building. Inside, I introduced myself and handed over my licence. I was directed to a desk in a nearby room, large and sterile with windows looking out onto a suburban street.
I was given a pair of gloves and a large, leather-bound book. My pulse picked up as I lifted it carefully onto foam supports and opened the cover. Inside were case notes for patients of the sanatorium, which was founded in 1885 by a wealthy entrepreneur, Thomas Holloway. I turned the pages until I reached ‘P’. And there it was. A small photograph of a young woman wearing a large woollen hat with a velvet flower, a well-fitted coat and a lace cravat. She looks away from the lens with her mother’s heavy-lidded eyes, her mouth open as if to speak. Behind the page was a thick letter. Carefully, I unfolded it and found Maud’s hand, running across twenty-two pages of stiff paper. Dated 27 September 1905, two years after her admission, it opens: ‘I have written to Mr Holde of Lackford Manor, asking him who should take me away from this Sanitorium [sic] as my Mother told me that she had nothing to do with me.’1
I’d been chasing this young woman for a decade and never expected to hear her adult voice. It was proof, in her own words, of how unhappy she had been. I took a breath to keep myself from shouting into the quiet, austere air.
Read the rest of this essay on Meanjin's blog, Spike.