Yorkshire, England, 1911: After a moment of defiance at the factory where she has worked since she was a child, Ella Fay finds herself an unwilling patient at the Sharston Asylum. Ella knows she is not mad, but she might have to learn to play the game before she can make a true bid for freedom. John Mulligan is a chronic patient, frozen with grief since the death of his child, but when Ella runs towards him one morning in an attempt to escape the place where he has found refuge, everything changes. It is in the ornate ballroom at the centre of the asylum, where the male and female patients are allowed to gather every Friday evening to dance, that Ella and John begin a tentative, secret correspondence that will have shattering consequences, as love and the possibility of redemption are set against one ambitious doctor’s eagerness to make his mark in the burgeoning field of eugenics, at all costs.
Set over the heatwave summer of 1911, at a time when England was at the point of revolt, The Ballroom is a tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.
The Ballroom is a beautifully written, haunting tale that takes place during the summer heatwave of 1911 and is set in a large asylum near the Yorkshire moors. It’s a story that is by turns brutal, uplifting, heartbreaking and chilling, showing how easy it was to commit someone back then; anyone regarded as different, believed likely to be troublemakers or who were just plain unwanted – asylums were a regular ‘dumping ground’ for those who were considered ‘unfit for society’. The novel also very cleverly poses questions as to the nature of insanity and, more importantly, just who gets to decide what is sane and what is not.
The story is told in the third person through the viewpoints of three different people. Ella Fay is a young woman who has worked in factories since she was eight years old. She now works as a spinner and over the years, she has become more and more affected by the lack of daylight – the windows are painted over and dirty – and fresh air in the room, and finally snaps, breaking a window to let in the light and air. We would today recognise someone in the grip of depression, but in 1911, Ella is regarded as a troublemaker and accused of damaging the machinery at the factory. She is confused and distressed when she is committed to the asylum, and at first, tries to escape. But after an unsuccessful attempt, she decides instead that the best thing to do is to keep her head down and her nose clean; to work hard and hope that she will soon be released.
Irishman John Mulligan is one of the ‘chronics’ – the patients classified as suffering from long-term illnesses and who are unlikely to ever leave the asylum. Sent there for the treatment of the melancholia which descended upon him following the deaths of his wife and child, he is articulate, intelligent and kind, and is trusted enough to work outside either on the Sharston farm or – less pleasantly – digging graves which will eventually be occupied by deceased inmates. It’s on one of the grave-digging days that John sees Ella, running as though for her life – and even though she is caught and taken back to the asylum, she becomes associated in his mind with the idea of freedom.
The third protagonist is Doctor Charles Fuller, a young man who failed to live up to the expectations of his father, a prominent surgeon. His real love is music, and one of his duties is as bandmaster to the small group of staff members who play in the band that provides the music for the dance held every Friday for the asylum’s inmates, which is the one time each week when the male and female patients are allowed to mix. Charles is interested in the Eugenics movement, which was popular among a number of scientists and politicians – notably one Winston Churchill – at the time. Charles doesn’t completely subscribe to the view that the ‘feeble minded’ should be sterilised to prevent breeding, and instead wants to explore the benefits of music as therapy. He’s a complex character, and possibly the most interesting of the three narrators; he wants to do the best for the people in his care, and hopefully make a name for himself along the way, but as the story progresses his desperation to prove himself and his conflicted feelings about his sexuality lead him to a dangerous obsession which clearly illustrates how easily the line between sanity and insanity can blur.
Ms. Hope does a splendid job of depicting the lives of the inmates and staff at the asylum and of creating an atmosphere of darkness, apprehension and uncertainty. The days are monotonous, and the weeks would merge into one another were it not for the Friday night dance held in the beautiful ballroom. The inmates look forward to this one chance to snatch some sort of normality in their lives, and it’s here that Ella and John finally meet. Their illicit friendship and romance is carried on through letters which they exchange whenever they can. John’s is a poetic soul and his letters are beautiful, but Ella, to her shame, cannot read, and gets her friend Clemency Church to read them to her and then write her responses. Clem is a private patient at Sharston, sent there by her well-to-do family as the result of a suicide attempt and diagnosed as having ‘hysteria’ – in reality a convenient label for a woman who didn’t do as she was told or didn’t fit the pattern as to what society dictated a woman should be.
The Ballroom was inspired by the author’s discovery that her great-great grandfather had been an inmate at the West Riding Mental Hospital, upon which Sharston Asylum is loosely based. But at its heart, it is a compelling, touching story about keeping hope alive and seeking light in dark places. The novel is perhaps a little slow to start, but that is really my only criticism; once it got going, I became completely engrossed in the world within the walls of this harsh institution and in the slowly unfolding lives of the characters. The writing is superb and often poetic, and the ending, while bittersweet, is moving and emotionally satisfying. This is a book to be savoured and one I’d heartily recommend to fans of evocative and well-written historical fiction.