Then imagine that the story is told with all the twists, turns, and commas of Victorian syntax with no little attention to bureaucratic details.
Could this be a lost Trollope manuscript? Some mix of The Warden and The Last Chronicle of Barset? It could be, but it isn't. It is actually a description of a real life scenario I stumbled across in the course of my job. You see, my job for 2012 is to research and write a book-length history of an insane asylum that dates back to 1855. After a few years working as an urban planner on a project to redevelop said insane asylum, and after working for a few more years dealing with the historic preservation issues related to that same project, I now get to write this history to help mitigate the adverse effect the redevelopment is having on the asylum which is a National Historic Landmark. (You may remember me posting some pretty cool historic photos of this asylum last spring.)
So the majority of my work day is spent in places like the National Archives and the Library of Congress. The archive work is particularly fascinating because I am working with primary documents that read like excerpts from a Trollope novel and are filled with lots of fantastic (mundane) Trollopian details.
How about this letter from 1857 offering the superintendent first refusal on a soon-to-be vacant (and better) pew at Christ Church for only $26 per annum?
Or how about the story suggested by this invoice for the superitendent's wife's funeral? Twenty carriages at $5 a piece, 21 pair of raw silk gloves, $20 for freezing the body. The superitendent was well paid at $2,500 per year, but this $304 funeral was more than 10% of his annual income.
And I must say, reading plenty of Trollope over the years has prepared me well for sifting through thousands of letter from the second half of the the 19th century. What it didn't prepare me for, however, was deciphering the sometimes cryptic handwriting which can make for really slow going. I can't wait until the typewriter is invented and the hospital buys one. Maybe my eyes will uncross when I get to those years.
One of the more fascinating, and Trollopian letters I have come across relates to the plot I described earlier. So again imagine this plot where the superintendent is fending off attacks on his professional integrity when he gets a letter from one of his former clerks George Kellogg, who is now farming in Jamaica, Vermont. In that letter Kellogg tells the superintendent of a visit from a man he judged
...to be about thirty years of age, light hair, red side whiskers, quite a full face (judge caused by whiskey), he had a small bottle of whiskey with him and he offered me some the first thing. It being nearly gone he drank it himself.The farmer goes on at some length to describe how the visitor attempted to bribe him to go back to Washington to testify against the superintendent.
The bribe was like this: 1st, I was to have my old place with better pay &c, 2nd, If one or two thousand dollars would induce me to tell all I knew for, said he, you know enough of Dr. Nichols to send him to State's prison...Kellogg is taken aback by the charges and the man's bald attempt to bribe him.
I told him he was a stranger to me and that I knew nothing about him or his friend whom he was working for and that I should be very careful what I said or did. He then said that his friends name was General M. McGowan who was a surgeon in the army a was third or fourth cousin of General Grant [presumably the newly elected President Ulysses S. Grant] and was a very fine man, and a great friend of Secretary [of the Interior] Cox and a man who would surely be appointed in Dr. Nichols' place.What amazes me about this scenario is that in 1869 someone was so intent on procuring the position of superintendent of this asylum that they sent this inebriated boob 451 miles north to try and bribe a former employee--and one who was still on good, personal terms with the superintendent. In the end, like a good Trollope novel, the superintendent was cleared of all charges but with an admonishment or two to keep better account books going forward.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many fascinating aspects to this project. Life in a Victorian-era insane asylum (Wilkie Collins anyone?) The role of the hospital during the Civil War. A pioneering institution in the understanding of brain pathology in the insane with over 2,500 brain specimens collected over the years. The place where Ezra Pound was kept for 15 years after being charged with treason after WWII. And the list goes on.
I don't think I have ever been so excited to go to work each day.