The Ballroom by Anna Hope
Anna Hope's second novel is set in Sharston Asylum which is on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors. The year is 1911 and they are in the middle of a heatwave summer. Although it is fictionalised, the inspiration for the story comes from her great great grandfather, an irishman who she discovered was admitted to Menston Asylum, in West Yorkshire, from 1909-1918. Sharston is modelled on that vast asylum which had extensive buildings and a huge, impressive ballroom.
The story centres around three characters, two of whom are inmates. Ella Fay is a young mill worker who has been admitted because she broke a window at work and was accused of attempting to damage machinery. John Mulligan a destitute irishman, has been in the asylum for longer, following melancholia after the death of his child and her mother. The third character is Dr. Charles Fuller who works at the asylum and is the bandmaster. Men and women are strictly segregated with the only opportunity to meet being a weekly dance in the ballroom which Charles leads. Only the men are allowed outside the building.
This novel will resonate with anyone who has an interest in how mental illness was regarded at the turn of the twentieth century. Reasons for admitting patients varied from hysteria, eating disorders, self-harming and melancholia, to being a pauper or what was known as 'feeble minded'. The story is set against the eugenics movement with some advocating sterilisation. Dr Charles Fuller is anxious that Sharston should be involved in this research. As the story progresses, you find yourself questioning who exactly is mad and who is sane.
I like the structure of the story which is developed through the perspectives of these three main protagonists: Ella, John and Charles. Their stories unfold and it is interesting to see how those who have power over others exercise it. Charles' views develop and you are shown his vulnerability. They are all three victims of others in their own way. At the centre of the story is a love story against the odds. I found the whole book moving, especially the ending.
In short: an atmospheric and thought provoking love story.
I received an e-copy of this novel from Random House UK, Transworld Publishers, via NetGalley.