The Ballroom by Anna Hope review: far from the madhouse crowd
A brilliantly moving mediation on what it means to be ‘insane’ in a cruel world
In 1909, an Irish man called John Mullarkey was admitted to a lunatic asylum in the West Riding of Yorkshire. He had been transferred there from a workhouse, and his notes described him as “very emaciated and poorly nourished”. Mullarkey’s medical notes said he was a “depressed” man who “has had to work very hard and has worried over his work”. Like many people admitted to such institutions at the time, Mullarkey never left the asylum. He died there in 1918.
More than a century later, Mullarkey’s great-great-granddaughter has written a superb novel inspired by her ancestor and the institution in which he lived and died. The Ballroom is a work of fiction, and its characters are, as Anna Hope points out in her afterword, “wholly fictional”. But the world and the attitudes it describes are all too real.
The Ballroom is the story of Ella Fay, a young woman without family who works in a Yorkshire cotton mill and, after an outburst in her stifling workplace, finds herself committed to Sharston Asylum. There she meets an Irish inmate, John Mulligan, who was admitted to the asylum from the workhouse, destitute and suffering from “melancholy” after the death of his daughter back in the west of Ireland. While John once had a stable home, Ella has never known love or friendship. But Sharston will change everything.
The walled lunatic asylum has become a staple of gothic and horror literature, looming up in everything from Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White to Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith. But Hope never resorts to cliche or cheap melodrama. Though she brilliantly conveys the horror of being confined to a sometimes brutal institution against one’s will, the asylum here is, by the standards of the time, comparatively progressive.
The food is decent and the more able male inmates are allowed outside to work on the grounds. While men and women are strictly segregated, once a week a select group of male and female inmates are taken to the asylum’s beautiful ballroom where, for one evening, they may dance and talk together.
And also pass notes. Though Ella can’t read or write, she begins a correspondence with John with the help of her friend Clem, an upper middle-class girl who prefers to be in Sharston rather than with her domineering family – in the asylum she can “belong to myself”.
John tells Ella about the world outside and, over the course of the sweltering summer, Ella forges an intense connection to this quiet man, “someone whose insides, she knew, spanned miles, even if his outside was closed and shuttered as before”.
Hope examines what we mean when we define someone as mad, reminding us that what seems to be mental illness can sometimes be the inevitable response to a world in which we don’t fit in. The book is a brilliant illustration of the fact that, then and now, acceptable behaviour is still defined by white, privileged men with a tendency to pathologise the “other”. But while John and Ella are literally behind bars, their young doctor, Charles Fuller, is in a very different sort of prison, tormented by his own fears and self-doubt.
Fuller has embraced the pseudo-science of eugenics, then reaching the peak of its troubling popularity among progressives and conservatives alike. Fuller idolises Winston Churchill(then, of course, a Liberal), who was one of the supporters of the Feeble Minded Control Bill, which included forced sterilisation of the “unfit”. (The bill was withdrawn, and a revised 1913 Act left out the sterilisation clause.)
As the novel progresses, Fuller’s passion for eugenics becomes a dangerous obsession, and Hope brilliantly shows how people can believe in terrible things and act in appalling ways, genuinely convinced that what they are doing is for the betterment of humankind.
Hope’s writing is muscular as well as lyrical. She is equally adept at evoking both the characters’ emotional states and their physical sensations – Ella’s heavy work in the asylum laundry is described so vividly I could almost feel my fingers chafe. Ella and John exchange only a few words throughout the novel, but their relationship is utterly convincing. All the characters are vividly and sensitively drawn; even Fuller, who could have been a monster, is depicted with compassion.
The heavy weather that lies over all of them almost feels like a character itself. “The sky above was blue, deep blue,” writes Hope, “but it hummed and buzzed, as if the blue were only a sheet and behind it, waiting to be rent free, lay black and boiling weather.”
In this deeply moving book, Hope reminds us that behind everyone’s facade lies something waiting to be rent free. Sometimes that outburst can be devastating. But sometimes, as John and Ella discover, it can be liberating as well.
Anna Carey’s latest novel is Rebecca Is Always Right