Harrowing and beautiful novel set in a ‘Pauper Lunatic Hospital’ in the long, hot summer of 1911
Anna Hope has written a sometimes unbearably painful novel, told through three voices. (third person narration)Two of them are patients: John, a Irish man, diagnosed with ‘melancholia’ who has been on the chronic ward – long term, little chance of release and Ella, a recently admitted patient, following a vandalising action (breaking a window) in her spinning mill workplace, her ‘unstableness’ seen as some kind of hysteria. The third voice is that of Charles, a disappointment to his high achieving, driven, medical professional family. Charles is much more drawn to the arts, particularly music, and is a skilled amateur violinist. He finds what seems like an ideal compromise – a large psychiatric hospital in Yorkshire are looking to recruit another member of the medical team, but are wanting someone with musical ability, to join the small staff orchestra.
Interwoven with the stories of her three characters are philosophies, politics, and ideologies influenced by Darwinism at that time – most powerfully, the idea of Eugenics.
Politically, there were the prospects of general strikes looming. Working conditions were often appalling, wages dreadful. Poverty and destitution was equated, in some circles, with feeblemindedness. It was interesting, reading Hope’s afterword, to see how strongly, in some quarters of government, ideas about Eugenics were being considered. There were some curious bedfellows who wished to exert control over who might be allowed to have children and who might not – Winston Churchill, Marie Stopes, George Bernard Shaw, Beatrice and Sidney Webb.
‘Mental hospitals’ have of course, across times and across countries, been used to incarcerate people who fall foul of received thinking of the times. Class politics, political and religious ideologies, gender, sexuality, race, may all render an individual more likely to receive a diagnosis of mental illness.
Hope draws the reader in most skilfully, and the central three characters, and two other patients, Clem, a young middle class woman, and John’s friend Dan, another patient, a gypsy, all have changes, developments and trajectories to follow. Some move towards wholeness, some towards disintegration, and Hope makes sense of all journeys.
Character, narrative, individual voice and indeed the authorial voice are skilfully done.
Whilst reading, I noticed that Hope seemed to be using words I had never come across before, which did not exist in my dictionaries – words like tallacky, chelping, gawbers. Her interesting language made sense in context, and I found myself ‘knowing’ I thought, what these made-up words meant……..on finishing the book and reading her afterword, I discovered she was using North Yorkshire dialect words, probably long fallen into disuse.
This novel also arose out of a personal, family association for Hope. There had been a ‘real’ asylum, in Yorkshire which Hope’s asylum was modelled on : Menston Asylum, opening in 1888, and originally called the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum. Hope’s great-great-grandfather, an Irishman from County Mayo, was transferred there from the workhouse, in 1909. Poor and destitute, ‘pauper lunatic’. That asylum, like Hope’s imaginary one, had a spectacular large ballroom.
I had some slight disappointment or reservation over the final coda scene, feeling perhaps that authorial chance was providing a satisfying wrap which I couldn’t quite accept as likely, but in no way does that detract from my absolute recommendation
I received this as a digital review copy from the publishers, via NetGalley.
And my thanks to Cleopatra Loves Books – her excellent review alerted me to this, and I now want to read Hope’s first novel, Wake. She is one to watch, for sure.