Menston Asylum had a ballroom; a fact that Anna Hope uses to great effect in her second novel. In this more neutral space the men and women of the asylum could, if allowed to attend, shed their identities as patients for a few brief hours and dance together. It’s an image that illuminates a novel that is in many ways so bleak. Ella Fay has been sentenced to the asylum because of her refusal to submit any more to the ‘work-discipline’ that positions her as nothing more as a cog in the factory machine; she works as a spinner, and one day is so desperate to ‘see the sky’ in their gloomy spinning room that she ‘slid a skep of empty bobbins out from under her feet, picked one up and launched it at the window beside her.’ The image of the open window will follow Ella throughout her time in the asylum, as she continues to seek out the natural world despite her daily toil in the laundry; when she is first allowed a bath, she stares outside: ‘Beyond the windows was green, mucky-dark in the low winter light, but green all the same. Hills in the distance, covered by a thin haar of mist.’ Hope writes beautifully about the countryside that surrounds the asylum, and its deep connection to the characters. And when Ella finally escapes the routine of the asylum to meet secretly with another inmate, John, she, of course, climbs out through a window.
John and Ella’s relationship is completely convincing, despite the limited time they have together; I’m no fan of love at first sight, but Hope manages to demonstrate the many ways they get to know each other, despite their frequent physical separation. John’s letters, read to Ella by her friend Clem, because Ella never learnt to read in her crowded elementary school, form a crucial point of connection, demonstrating their shared love of the landscape around them. As John writes of the flowers he sees, ‘They make a great display in the fields so that the fields seem almost to be made of gold… I think they are most beautiful just before they fall.’ Much seems to have been made in the publicity for this novel of the fact that it’s set in 1911, the famous ‘long summer’ that also marked the beginning of what was once known as the ‘Edwardian crisis’; union unrest, gun-running in Ireland, suffagrette militancy and the German war council of 1912 are all on the horizon. But to be honest, with the exception of some of the eugenics in the novel (more on that later) I didn’t feel that it was set at a time of change, or indeed in any particular year at all. Ella and John’s stories play out against a backdrop of alienation from the land and forcible separation from the fruits of their labours that could easily have been set at any time from the early nineteenth century onwards. Hope’s eye for specific detail ties it to the Edwardian years, but this choice of date is not essential to the story; nor does it need to be.
Except, perhaps, for the narrative of our third protagonist, Charles, a member of the asylum staff, and an enthusiast for new treatments. It’s with Charles’s voice that I felt The Ballroom was at its weakest. The novel recognises the troubling popularity of eugenic ideas among relatively progressive people in early twentieth-century Britain, and at the beginning of his downward tumble, Charles is portrayed as complex and sympathetic, especially as we swiftly realise he is struggling with his own homosexual desires. However, as he veers towards villainy, I found that I was increasingly questioning why his story was taking up so much of this otherwise well-balanced novel, if all we were to take away was that his standpoint is so bizarre and wrong that it could not be accepted by anybody reasonable. Of course, Charles’s ideas are repulsive, but rather than exploring how such ideas could have won support among the medical establishment, Hope seems to prefer to depict him as an outlier, despite a few references to other respectable figures who think in the same way. The twist in the tale – that Charles is the one veering towards madness as John and Ella, the supposed ‘lunatics’, clearly retain tight hold on their sanity – didn’t work for me; I found it a bit obvious and unenlightening. I started wondering what place there was in Hope’s novel for people who really are suffering from (non-asylum-induced) mental illness, rather than being victimised by social norms? They are reduced to shadows in the ballroom – or are not allowed to venture there at all. When exploring its central relationship, The Ballroom is on solid, and ultimately harrowing ground. But I felt there was more to say about the world beyond its walls.
I received a review copy of this novel via NetGalley.