Thursday, October 7, 2010

Wildthorn by Jane Eagland

Summary (courtesy of Goodreads):  Seventeen-year-old Louisa Cosgrove longs to break free from her respectable life as a Victorian doctor's daughter. But her dreams become a nightmare when Louisa is sent to Wildthorn Hall: labeled a lunatic, deprived of her liberty and even her real name. As she unravels the betrayals that led to her incarceration, she realizes there are many kinds of prison. She must be honest with herself - and others - in order to be set free. And love may be the key...

And here's what I thought:   I am admitting now that this might turn into a bit of a rant.   But before I get to that part, let me state that this was a GREAT book.   I found myself getting completely wrapped up in the story, and actually having a pretty emotional reaction to it at times.  Jane Eagland has such a vivid way of writing that I felt like I really knew Louisa, and was experiencing things right along with her.   Louisa is very smart, but this means that sometimes, her behavior isn't entirely "suitable."   For example, she's interested in medicine, and reading, and she doesn't try to hide her interests --- but this puts her completely at odds with members of her family who feel that she should behave in a more "ladylike" manner.   Because she's unconventional, she's basically sent to a lunatic asylum.   It's not clear who has sent her there, and this is something that becomes uncovered through the story.  However, she is sent there, under a different name, and forced to figure out not only who sent her, but also what she's going to do.   It takes all of her wits to figure out how to survive while she's there.... and plan her escape.

I don't want to say too much more, because I don't want to have any spoilers here.  However, I will say that there is mention of love in this book, but it's a little.... unconventional.  Readers picking this book up might expect a typical historical romance, and might be a bit surprised, because Louisa has feelings for other girls.  Historically speaking, this actually wasn't that uncommon (although most of the time quite hidden), but it might surprise readers.   

And this leads me to that little part I warned you about: my bit of a rant.   In addition to writing what I felt was a great book, Jane Eagland also provides readers with a window into a very shameful part of women's history (and actually, some history of mental health care in general).  It was very common for a long time period for family members to be able to commit a woman for basically no reason at all.   If you were a woman, and you displayed certain signs, such as a love of reading, curiosity, "willfullness," or any number of things, your family could have a doctor declare you unfit, and have you committed to an asylum.  Once there, you would have no rights at all.   Similar to what happens to Louisa in this story, you would have no contact with your family, and no real say in your medical care, or anything else.   Louisa is intelligent and knows that the name she's being addressed as when she reaches the asylum is not her own --- but of course, if she tries to deny this name, and reason with the staff, it's assumed that she is just a "mad girl" and doesn't know what she's talking about.  Hard to imagine, I know --- but this was the reality for many women.   I found myself reading this story and feeling outrage over what was happening to Lou, mostly because I knew this was based on real history.   I think for many of us, in this day and age, it is difficult to believe that, say, your brother could have you put in a mental asylum just because he didn't get along with you.  Or because you liked to read.  Can you believe statements like "Excessive study, especially in one of the fair sex, often leads to insanity." ??? (p. 70)  How about: "Excessive book-reading and study leading to a weakening of the mind."  (p. 237).  And yes, this is one of the statements in Louisa's intake papers at the asylum.   In this story, we're not sure who has sent Louisa to Wildthorn Hall.  It could be her mother, who is constantly exasperated that Louisa won't "behave" and be a good girl.  Her brother is a snot, always sulking about Louisa's closeness to their father -- once her father passes away, maybe it's the brother who sends Louisa away (especially after he has a doctor pay a surprise visit on her).  The author gives foreshadowing throughout the story, alternating between Louisa in the present, and in her recollections.  It kept me off balance, for sure, and when it was revealed who had actually committed her to Wildthorn, I was floored.  

Needless to say, asylums were often not pleasant places, although some of them were.  Originally intended to be places of rest and peace, where troubled minds could be soothed, some asylums did offer good treatment to patients.  (There is a really interesting book about asylums by Oliver Jacks called : Asylum: inside the closed world of state mental hospitals).  However, many of them were frightening, filled with unsavory staff and questionable practices.  It was not uncommon for patients to suffer abuse, both mental and physical, while in asylums.   I felt like in this book, the author did a good job of making the asylum pretty realistic, and thus, pretty frightening.   This isn't just a historical novel: it's a scary story.   Personally, I know that if I lived during this time, I would be clamping down on my entire personality because I'd be terrified of something like this happening (because, you know, I'm smart and I like to read....which has made me mentally unstable).   It makes me a little angry, thinking about all of the perfectly sane women who wound up in situations like the one in this story, and whose stories we'll never know.   But maybe that's one of the best things about this book: it made me react, and it made me think.

Cover art:  I like that the cover is a shadowed corset.  First, I actually like corsets -- I have one that I wear when I go to the Renaissance Faire (yes, I do dress up) and it's so comfy (and it makes me stand up really straight).  Mine has boning and lacing in the back, front, and sides, so it's pretty stiff.   At any rate -- I can relate to this cover.  While corsets do give you a very pretty figure, they're not always the most comfortable thing.   I felt like the shadowy corset on the cover helps to illustrate the constraints that Louisa is under, and how they shape her.

First line(s):  "The carriage jolts and splashes along the rutted lanes flooded by the heavy November rains.  Through its grimy window, all I can see of the unfamiliar Essex countryside are bare hedgerows, the skeletons of trees, looming out of the morning mist.  I shiver and clutch my travelling wrap around me more tightly - the familiar roughness of its wool collar on my neck is comforting."

Where I got the book:  Library


Escapist said...

Wow that sounds great! I was actually avoiding this book because the title and cover looked like another historical romance or maybe paranormal romance. But this sounds really interesting! Thanks for a great review.

Dazzling Mage said...

Have this on my shelf, and I'm dying to get to it! It seems like a great read, but the historical part about mental healthcare and women is going to depress me, I know.

Anyway, great review!

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