Another month, another Book Club book. Again, this is something that having seen it in a shop or a library, I would never ever have picked up. I read the hardback version, with the caged bird cover. It's pretty standard fare for a book about imprisonment and would have in no way enticed me to read it under normal circumstances.
The book is set in the mid 1800s and opens with an experimental Doctor slash
photographer attempting to use this snazzy new medium for diagnostic purposes.
Dr. St Clair believes that the camera lens may be able to distinguish mania or
insanity in troubled women more easily than the Doctoral eye. Querios Abse,
Lake House owner and manager allows him to use his patients for his
photographic research. The photographs brighten the somewhat gloomy interior
and one must look medically progressive in the mental health field in order to
impress the magistrates.
Meanwhile, a wholesome, rural sailor's daughter type arrives at the grand
country house with her new husband. He is very much cut from the uptight
minister cloth (whiskers, top-hat, frown) the couple do not seem incredibly
comfortable with each other. We quickly learn that though Lake House terms
itself a "country retreat" for well-off ladies of a nervous or
hysterical disposition, it is in fact a private asylum. Anna, the unfortunate
wife, finds herself committed to the asylum for her missionary exploits
rescuing Welsh sailors from a recent shipwreck- something she felt compelled to do, being from a naval family. Rev. Victor Palmer unceremoniously
dumps her into the care of Querios Abse, who is only too happy to oblige. His
asylum is experiencing certain financial difficulties lately. Anna remains
convinced for a while that there has been some sort of mistake and that husband
Reverend Palmer will return to collect her. Or failing that, her sister. She
resolves to distance herself from the insane women that she suddenly finds
herself forced to live with because she is not one of them.
Personally, I was bored rather quickly by this novel- there wasn't really
enough to get your teeth sunk into. The plot is fairly transparent from the
beginning (and very well-trodden by Victorian authors too), most of the
characters are flimsy and uninspiring (one matron has to be cruel and
villainous, one has to be helpful and kind), most of the other
patients felt like interchangeable bit-players. I felt that this book spent too
much time trying to make us feel outrage and sympathy for Anna and not enough
time establishing an atmosphere or a supporting cast. Some characters appeared
to be set up to rise to importance later in the plot, but turned out to have no discernable
purpose at all. I found it very difficult to care what happened to any of them,
to be honest. Even the presumably horrific 'treatments' that Anna is forced to
endure didn't stir up any empathy. Perhaps an implication of torture would have
been more effective than merely whizzing through the descriptions of the
procedures. Anna barely reacted to them, in thought or in behaviour. Though the
book didn't offend me in any actual sense, I certainly wouldn't recommend it.
Our discussion of this novel raised some interesting points about the
history of mental illness, the stigma which has always been attached to it and
the (perhaps not as advanced as we would like to believe) contemporary means of
diagnosis and treatment used today. We also compared the abandonment and the
neglect of the women in the novel to modern care homes for the elderly. Whilst
this was an interesting discussion, it wasn't something that the book made
me think of.
I read quite a lot of Victorian literature and very little historical
fiction. I think these things are related. For a start, I couldn't help but
feel like this novel borrowed a little too heavily from one chapter of
The Woman in White. Lady Glyde (previously Laura Fairlie) finds her
identity switched with Anne Catherick and she is committed to an asylum by her
dastardly husband under Anne's name. The asylum owners are led to believe that
'Anne' is suffering from a crippling delusion that she is Lady Glyde. Lady
Glyde's untimely death is announced publically- though it is the body of the
real Anne that lies in her grave. Laura, Lady Glyde is powerless to prove her
identity and her sanity. What's done in a couple of pages by Collins is
stretched out to novel length here.
I think people are aware, generally, that many women had a fairly tough time
in Victorian England. No votes, no property, few employment prospects, very
little influence or status. Healthcare and hygiene were rudimental at best- we
get it. Personally I'd rather hear about it through the fiction of actual
Victorians, but that's just me.
On a related note- if you liked The Painted Bride, I would
recommend the Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, featuring the non-victim, mustache-faced single-and-doesn't-care Marian Halcombe- my favourite fictional woman of theVictorian Era. Even if you didn't
enjoy it- I'd Recommend tWOW anyway. Also, if you want an incredible
examination of mental institutions, ostracism and 'the insane' please, please
read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey. Kesey crafts a
thoroughly hellish asylum with one of the sickest and most sadistic matrons
ever committed to paper. His supporting characters are brilliant- three dimensional
and each with their own untold story. His protagonist is one of the best-
flawed, yes, both a coward and a hero. He jumps out of the pages and demands
that you pay attention to him. READ IT NOW!