After reading a couple of romance novels to get The Midwife out of my system, I dove back into my to-read pile and came up with The Ballroom by Anna Hope. This book has been on my to-read list since I first read a review of it in one of the journals that’s always floating around my colleague’s offices, tempting us to buy more books. I’ve long had a fascination with pre-ethics board asylums and psychology for reasons I haven’t quite fathomed yet. The Ballroom is set at one such as asylum in rural England just before the First World War. Two inmates meet at the weekly dance, not knowing that they are the object of a doctor’s research into eugenics.
The Ballroom is told in three parts. We meet Ella Fay first. Ella is not mentally ill. She’s only at Sharston because she broke a window at the textile factory where she worked. At a time when the suffragists were getting more radical, it could be dangerous for a woman to show any sign of uppitiness. Once she’s in, everything she says and does counts against her because the doctors see only expected signs of hysteria. We meet John Mulligan next. John has been suffering from melancholy (depression) ever since his child died and his wife left him. He rarely speaks, preferring to suppress old memories and avoid meddling staff.
The last narrator we meet is Dr. Charles Fuller. At the beginning of The Ballroom, he is one of the kinder members of staff in that he doesn’t actively provoke or hurt anyone. I was sucked into this book by the reviews that mentioned a woman wrongly incarcerated in an asylum, but I stayed to watch Fuller descend into a self-induced madness. Fuller was originally hired as a nurse (since he failed to qualify for a specialty) and to play music to Sharston’s patients. Fuller is interested in the burgeoning eugenics movement, though he initially thinks that segregating the sexes is enough to stop “undesirables” from reproducing. After an incident with John and a bout of flu, John decides that sterilization is the way to go. Reading Fuller’s pseudoscience reminded me strongly of reading Imbeciles earlier this year, which detailed the case of Carrie Buck. Fuller has the same misunderstanding of socioeconomics and genetic inheritance that historical eugenists had. His power over the patients is terrifying, especially as events build to The Ballroom‘s climax.
Ella and John’s story gets a little lost once Fuller starts his dive into whatever diagnosis you’d care to give him. Since Ella and John are often in their wards, away from Fuller, they have no idea that they’re in danger. It’s nail-bitingly tense seeing Fuller plan all kinds of ways to punish John, get rid of Ella, and “treat” a self-harming anorexic who is Ella’s off-and-on friend. I ended up staying awake past midnight last night reading because I just had to know what would happen next.
The Ballroom is gripping, though brutal, read. The early reviews did little justice to all the twists and turns packed inside this novel.