The Ballroom by Anna Hope: review and interview

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“Where love is your only escape ….

1911: Inside an asylum at the edge of the Yorkshire moors,
where men and women are kept apart
by high walls and barred windows,
there is a ballroom vast and beautiful.
For one bright evening every week
they come together
and dance.
When John and Ella meet
It is a dance that will change
two lives forever.”

The Ballroom is a remarkable work of fiction, where the love story between two patients in a Victorian asylum shines a light on a most unedifying and painful time in history. Set in what has been called ‘God’s own country’, the contrast between the ungodly practices going on inside Sharston Asylum and the majestic, pure beauty of the Yorkshire Ridings is acute. As part of this review-feature, I interviewed author Anna Hope about her research and the themes which underpin this evocative novel. 

British asylums were home to people diagnosed with mental illness and/or learning disabilities and although some of their stories have been recorded, sadly, the majority have been lost or weren’t documented in the first place outside of medical records. The history of stigma and fear associated with mental health services means that, historically, patients have been voiceless, socially, politically and culturally, and the public remain largely ignorant about what went on inside these asylums. Privacy laws means that a hundred years must pass from the death of the last patient before any personal details can be released into the public realm, hindering historians from accessing the archives, but author Anna Hope has managed to conduct extensive research which underpins the fictional story of two patients, Ella and John, and their doctor Charles Fuller, who were incarcerated in a fictional asylum she called Sharston, an institution which she says is “crafted as much from the imagination as the historical record” after she learned of a family connection to an actual asylum which once existed nearby.

Hope’s great-great grandfather was called John Mullarkey and he was a patient at Mernston Asylum in the West Riding of Yorkshire after his transfer from a workhouse. Seemingly suffering from what we’d now diagnose as a depressive disorder with an attendant malnutrition and cachexia, Hope’s author notes describe how he never recovered and died in Mernston aged 56 in 1918. The Ballroom is novel is dedicated to his memory and takes its name from her discovery of an actual ballroom inside the asylum, fallen derelict from lack of use. It was this poignant epilogue which triggered my tears which had been brimming for the last four chapters.

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Picture: Mark Davis / Guzelian Picture shows the ballroom at West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum at High Royds Hospital, Menston, West Yorkshire.

Tell us about your research and how you encountered the story of your ancestor…

“I came across the evidence of his time in the asylum by chance (if there is such a thing) when looking at the census records for my great-grandfather, his son. In a tiny crossed-out note on the side of the census form for 1911 it stated that John Mullarkey, the head of the family was in Menston Asylum, explains Anna.

“Having never heard of the place I immediately did a search on the Internet and came across local historian Mark Davies’s fantastic online archive dedicated to the history of what became known as High Royds hospital. It was there I saw the pictures of the ruined ballroom at the asylum’s heart and knew I needed to write about the place. When I eventually accessed my great-great-grandfather’s records I found them to be incredibly moving; he was a man suffering from what was deemed to be ‘melancholia,’ but really he seemed to have been sent out of his mind by poverty and worry over work. To add to this, on his admission from the local workhouse he was ‘emaciated’ and ‘poorly nourished.’ He never recovered and died in the asylum in 1918, ” explained Anna.

“I took many of the biographical details of his life: coming from the west of Ireland to find work in Liverpool as a young man, his ‘melancholia,’ his refusal to speak when arriving in the asylum, and used them for the character of John in the book, but I also always knew I wanted to have the freedom of fiction in creating John Mulligan. Similarly I re-named the asylum Sharston so I might have the greater latitude in writing about the place that fictionalisation allows, ” she adds.

The Ballroom introduces us to Ella, recently admitted from the cotton mill where she worked from a young age after smashing a window- she has barely had a life. The brutal working conditions there caused her eyes to suppurate painfully and skin to develop an inflamed rash. Her desire to see the beautiful moors she knew lay just feet from the building and her need to inhale air which was not clotted with dust motes led to an act of atavistic desperation and as a result of this, she was beaten and committed to Sharston under the care of an ambitious young doctor, Charles Fuller. His own employment there defies the stifling expectations of his own middle-class Yorkshire family and Charles struggles to find his own identity, He has high hopes that weekly music and dances in the asylum’s ballroom will help him make his name in the medical world as a doctor who uses music to tackle psychological fractures. He spends hours imagining the reception his paper will receive in London, adopting a purely intellectual approach in order to inoculate himself against his feeling. Charles is in denial of his own emotional connection to music, despite observing the benefits that listening to music brings to his patients.

John is one of those patients, an Irishman diagnosed with melancholia after a series of losses, and so is Ella. The Ballroom is, on first sight, the story of growing relationships in a closed-off world. John and Ella are catalysts for change and acceptance and submission and through them we meet other patients; resilient and spirited Dan who is John’s friend, and Clem, another victim of a time and place where women who dared to push against a seemingly gilded existence were sat firmly down, again and again, until they broke.

In her authorial note, Hope talks of her shock at learning that the then Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, was a strong supporter of eugenics, espousing his belief that mental illness, poverty and physical disability were all evidence of a weakened genetic stock and therefore provided a good reason to sterilise the significant numbers of people in Britain with these conditions. Her own discoveries colour the prose, allowing us to feel shock, and then dismay, as former critics of the practice become zealous devotees of it. This volte-face is an ironic result of what appears to be Charles own psychological breakdown as he fights with his insight and goes on to project his own failings onto the patients and especially, onto John who represents all those qualities he fears he lacks: poetry, a heart and soul that cannot be imprisoned and a disturbing masculinity which seems hewn from the wild moors.

I drew parallels between the black Ragtime musicians of New Orleans and their small emancipatory gains and that of Charles and his orchestra when he first tried to play Ragtime and failed to embody its spirit. As a reader it was a moment in the story where I held my breath, wondering if Charles would let himself be free. Charles is as imprisoned, in his own way, as some of the patients in the asylum. He fails to recognise this although Ella, Clem and John all seem to display a nascent awareness of this. Did you feel ever tempted to give Dr Charles Fuller the gift of insight, I ask Anna?

“I definitely thought about giving him insight and I do think he’s perhaps more aware than he allows himself in his thoughts,” Anna replies. “Ultimately though, I thought it was dramatically more interesting if he was deeply in denial about his own demons and desires. I think perhaps it’s impossible to become the sort of character Charles does without deep suppression of one’s empathy. And to have empathy you need to have some modicum of self-love. I’m not sure, despite his arrogance, how much Charles really loves himself. I loved him though, despite the horror of what he becomes. I think I kept seeing him as a small boy, terrorised by his father, someone who has never felt comfortable in his own skin and wants to hurt the world in the same way he’s hurting.”

 

Of particular distress to me was learning that relatives of Charles Darwin were also exponents of eugenics and their lectures may well have gone on to influence the modified Feeble-Minded Bill which was passed in 1913 as the Mental Deficiency Act. That Darwin’s own contribution to the knowledge we have of humankind should be so distorted and abused for political ends keeps the story taut as we await the unfolding of history, sitting alongside Charles as he struggles to retain his equilibrium at one of the London lectures and sits in his room, clutching transcripts of Dr Tredgold’s address to the society at Caxton Hall. Tredgold’s findings on the Feeble-Minded were eventually passed onto Parliament and Charles wants this for himself because he is surrounded by almost faceless patients and fears invisibility as a result of what must feel like voluntary professional incarceration.

The reader cannot help but draw parallels with the politics of today but there is authorial subtlety at play here and as a result, realisation creeps slowly and coldly upon the reader.  Whilst Charles and his fellow eugenicists burn with the fevered heat of the zealot, Ella, John and the other patients remain oblivious which adds to the creeping unease until Hope allows it to bloom fully in her reader. What is particularly affecting is our realisation that the patients remain unenlightened as to Charles’s plans for medical posterity. We see them react in confusion and fear as things happen to them but any resolution of this does not involve knowledge and a consequently attendant power. And so the paternalistic philosophy of the asylum system perpetuates their dis-empowered status and our knowledge makes us collusive.

Whilst the government of today is not advocating eugenics, there does seem to be a feeling that there is a growing British under-class who are depicted as taking more than their fair share. Instead of eliciting compassion and support, they are instead dehumanised and ‘othered’ as a prelude to drastic social-welfare cuts. It has been a primitive and successful strategy to date. We are privy to Charles in his private space, a small room in the grounds where he studies, practises music and reads a transcript by Tredgold which states: “I have no hesitation in saying, that nowadays the degenerate offspring of the feeble-minded and chronic pauper is treated with more solicitude, has better food and clothing and medical attention, and has greater advantages than the child of the respectable and independent working man, So much is this the case that people are beginning to realise that thrift, honesty, and self-denial do not pay,” and in this, we cannot help but hear the words of Ian Duncan-Smith.

And Charles in his own private space, reads of measures which involve the most private space of all- a person’s sexual and reproductive organs- a potential decision which will make them public property, and their removal a tacit condition to access welfare and mental-health care. The plot exposes a paradox: sterilised patients remain incarcerated in a hidden asylum, where daily doings are secretive but patients are not permitted privacy or secrets and their bodies and minds have fluid boundaries which are defined by those who have charge over them. They are permitted only the most cursory of identities.

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High-Royds asylum at Menton, West Yorks

An early scene introduces us to John and Dan as they dig communal un-marked graves and these graves act as sump for all manner of fears as well as being a literal and metaphorical barrier to hope and progression: even death is not an escape and death will not return identity to patients nor give them a longed-for privacy and personal space. Hope finds a way to navigate us through a realisation which might otherwise threaten to overwhelm the reader, via runaway Ella, whose furious, defiant flight is brought to an accidental end by her encounter with John as he sees her fleeing as he digs the graves for patients who die in the feared chronic wards.

Released from Scarston asylum, Hope’s prose roams and probes the glorious countryside and when the reader is plunged back into the crepuscular gloom of the buildings, it is a shock. The sense of place is profound and John and Ella’s appreciation of the world outside is heightened because they are divorced from it. The asylum is a scar on the landscape but it also seems hewn from it. The dramatic Yorkshire moors which seem wild, dangerous and untamed to those of us unfamiliar with them and to Charles who prefers the tamed and subdued, but to John and Ella, they are places of safety, an alternative and purer form of asylum for the couple who seek out the dark woods and fields of crops to meet and fully be themselves. As Ella finds ways of escaping the dankness of the laundry and the dank gloom of the day-rooms and dormitories, she steps into the light and we see her.

John and Ella are very much part of the landscape and show such love for the countryside and nature. Indeed Ella’s need for air and space and connection is what causes her to be committed in the first place when her breaking of the mill-window is deemed such a transgression, it cannot be the act of a sane person. I found their attempts to maintain this connection with nature inside such a dark place almost unbearably sad and Hope’s own love for the Yorkshire Ridings shines through her prose.
Was it a shock for you when your research led you to read about such darkness (unnamed graves, abusive practices) existing in what is called ‘God’s own country’? For the reader, it is such a contrast and a triumph of writing, I comment.
“I grew up in Lancashire, in a beautiful village on the moors, but close to towns like Bolton, Blackburn and Bury, which in the 80’s were suffering a lot from post-industrial malaise. It always struck me how these towns, which were often full of deprivation were so close to such wild, open country and I always thought about the mill workers, and what their relationship might have been to those moors,” Anna says.
“As for Yorkshire, my dad’s a Yorkshireman and I have many Yorkshire members of my family, and I see that darkness and wildness as definite Yorkshire traits. There’s a blackness to the humour there which I love, and which only comes from things being a bit tough, but also this sense of incredible expansiveness you get from the landscape. I walked a lot on Ilkely moor, for instance, when writing the book, which is such a rich and inspiring spot. But I suppose, no, it wasn’t a surprise to me to discover such darkness there, although it must be said the unnamed graves were by no means confined to Yorkshire and the north, I think such practises were widespread in the asylum system across Britain,” she adds.

 

Hope is adept at writing conversation, melding evocative visual imagery and exquisite dialect with casual chat which contain little speech bombs if you pay attention, encouraging readers to become more insightful. Clem quotes Emily Dickinson; “There’s a certain slant of light. Winter afternoons. That oppresses, like the heft of cathedral tunes” as she helps Ella in the laundry where they both work, a beautiful example of the way Hope uses light, shade, and dark to emphasise the taunt of the countryside outside as the light and dark of day and night flows over the moors and pushes against the high windows. Music contains the same light and shadow too, as does dancing and the question is whether a moment of joy makes the rest of life more or less bearable. We’re forced to ask that of ourselves.

There’s epistolary conversation too and the letters that John and Ella write to each-other, with Clem’s assistance, are full of delicate yet powerful natural imagery; the epic migration of the swallow and the changing light of the surrounding woodland; a flower picked from the lawns and pressed in an encyclopaedia. Like them, we are swallowed up by the stolid and sere asylum walls but Hope reminds us to look up, out of the windows as they do and to keep watch over the future on their behalf even when it seems as if the walls have closed in on them [and us] permanently.

For Clem and the other patients, the life of the mind is a divine agony and there are no easy answers, even in death. Charles introduction of music as therapy in the asylum is a troublesome catalyst, making patients vulnerable in new ways, opening them up to the divine as Dickinson elucidates in her poem. Handling a man’s cotton shirt with stained cuffs, Clem half muses, “Men. You can never  get the stains out,” a shivering reminder of events which might have triggered her symptoms and caused her incarceration. Mental illness can be hard to articulate for even the most verbally adept and at a time when this was not encouraged socially, and little benefit seemed to result from an open conversation with ones doctors, these asides act as signposts which we can navigate from, although it is frustrating that the doctors do not see what we, the reader with historical hindsight, can.

In The Ballroom, Anna Hope gives voice to stories rarely told and life to people who were secreted away, living lives so tenuous and shifting, they barely seemed to exist at all. The historical detail is handled skilfully by Hope and her own historiography never overshadows that of her characters whose ability to make themselves heard is already seriously hindered. Like Dickinson’s poem, her book shifts from the place where hurt originates- society, religious doctrine, the culture mores of the time- to the earthly recipients of that hurt- the patients and staff who are trapped in their own way. Hope roots her characters strongly in the dramatic landscapes of the Yorkshire Ridings, giving back the dignity, belonging and sense of place that asylum has denied them, and her prose soars over the story, reminding us of the swallows which so fascinate John as they return each year to make their summer homes on the moors. The love story at its heart is painful but one of the best I have read in a long time.

The Ballroom is very cinematic, I comment to Anna. Who would you like to see play the main roles? Or is it something you find hard to envision?
“I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it at all, but as an ex- actress I know how fickle that world can be, so I try not to think about it too much! If it happens, I’ll definitely have some ideas to pitch in though – the characters are so dear to me and I can sense them so clearly that to have a very different sort of actor playing the role would be hard,” Anna replies.
I’m pretty sure that The Ballroom will be on our screens at some point.
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Author Anna Hope // photo contributed

The Ballroom was published February 4th 2016 and is in all good bookshops.

Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
ISBN: 9780857521965

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Home away from home: Anna Hope’s novel ‘The Ballroom’ has links with our own Suffolk history

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Picture: Mark Davis / Guzelian Picture shows the ballroom at West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum at High Royds Hospital, Menston, West Yorkshire. A photographic book entitled `Asylum’ has just been published and shows the work of photographer Mark Davis who has photographed derelict asylum’s round Britain and Ireland.
This feature was first published by The Bury Free Press in their print edition only and is reprinted here by kind permission.

Grand ballrooms are not the first thing that come to mind when we imagine the Victorian asylums of our recent past but a newly published novel by Anna HopeThe Ballroom, was inspired by her discovery old photographs of an ornate ballroom in a northern asylum, now fallen into disrepair. And whilst her story is set many miles away, in the Yorkshire Ridings, it has intriguing parallels with the old county asylum, once known as St Audry’s near Ipswich and the exhibition dedicated to it in Stowmarket’s Museum of East Anglian Life. After reading Anna’s novel and interviewing her for this feature, I realised that it was time to re-visit this local museum which has an exhibit about the old St Audry’s asylum and talk to Lisa Harris who is employed there as Collections and Interpretation Manager.

The St Audry’s Project tells the tale of the old St Audry’s Hospital in Melton, which began life as the Suffolk County Asylum in 1832, on the site of an old workhouse. When St Audry’s closed in 1993, its museum collection and archive were divided between various regional establishments. Since then, the Museum of East Anglian Life has been collating oral testimonies and working with local people to ensure that such an important and fascinating part of Suffolk history is not lost. Lisa explains the history of the collection and her involvement in it.

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Abbots Hall at Museum of East Anglian Life. Image: Museum of East Anglian Life

“The Museum of East Anglian Life was re-developing Abbots Hall and we wanted to look at the concept of home and belonging: home as in the people who themselves once lived in Abbots Hall; home as in being a proud Stowmarket girl, or a Suffolk person or even an East Anglian. We also wanted to look at different types of home, of which an asylum is one, and we knew we had the St Audrys collection which hadn’t actually been on public display before, to my knowledge,” she says

“All the archives that survived are based at Ipswich Records Office so this gave us a chance to talk about this whole element of life in Suffolk but also to link into the bigger picture and we were able to get funding from Comic Relief for this.

It is interesting that the collection came into being via the informal efforts of the staff who once worked at the hospital and I ask Lisa about this.

“The collection came here originally because it was in the teaching section of St Audry’s, housed in the attic. When they became a teaching hospital in the 1950s different staff gradually gathered items such as clothing, farm equipment and patients belongings and created a museum on site. But when the asylum closed in 1953, there was concerns as to where all of this might go. Some of the more medical items went to the Science Museum in London, a lot of it went to Felixstowe Museum and the rest came here”, she explains, sweeping her arm around the room lined with glass vitrines containing the tokens used as part of a patient-goods exchange system, the books and records, carefully inked in black fountain pen, pairs of spectacles, thick hard-to-rip nightgowns and decks of cards.

There’s staged vignettes too: a hospital screen has become an art installation where people have attached labels inscribed with the stigmatising language used to describe mental illness and the people who experience it. ‘Mental’, ‘schizoid’, ‘mental enfeeblement’ are starkly stamped on paper luggage tags and there’s a bed and bath with restraints in one corner plus the recorded voices of former staff who talk of their own lives there, often in a pronounced Suffolk burr. As visitors move slowly around the room, these voices fill the air, bringing the room to life.

Conducting research such as this can be made challenging by the stringent rules which control access to patient records: By law, a 30 year closure period is applied to administrative and committee papers, 80 years for student and staff records, and 100 years for personal medical records. This means the most important voices of all – that of the patients- are missing. Both Lisa Harris and Anna Hope emphasise the importance of that patient voice and the ways in which they sought it out for their respective endeavours.

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Anna Hope: author of The Ballroom

The voice of the patients in The Ballroom are vivid, born in part from the many hours of research its author put in, as Anna Hope explains. “Their [the patients] voices do break through too, particularly in the casebooks. I read extensively in the casebooks of High Royds for the period in which the book is set, and the patients jumped vividly from their pages; even the act of holding the casebook in my hands was powerful: the marbled covers, the smell of age, the photographs of the patients, and their own words, erupting into the present, making themselves heard.” Anna skilfully combines her research with the imagination of a fiction author, managing to avoid the trap that many authors fall into, of circumventing the objectivity of historical data to such a degree that accuracy suffers.

“We decided our exhibition would only go up to the 1920s because we can’t access any of the records after that date so why try to tell a story that isn’t out there yet in purely historical terms?” Lisa points out. “Our concern was telling that historical story in the hope that people can learn from it. And that maybe we don’t make the same mistakes in the future that we made in the past…or in the case of something has worked well, we’ll take that and work out how we can take that forward now. We’re trying to do sessions with medical professionals because in order to tell the story you’ve got to have some understanding of the terminology and the treatments. I’m not a medical expert, my understanding  is of curating and preservation: woodworm and rust!” She laughs. “I need to be able to point people in the right direction to get greater understanding, and to properly explain the context”, something which served her well when later on in our chat,  Lisa tells me about her encounters with some artefacts which appear to have a sinister purpose.
In 1832, when St Audry’s was called  The Suffolk County Asylum for Pauper Lunatics, Dr John Kirkman was appointed Medical Superintendent  and his reports and those of the doctors following him show a mind remarkably in tune with some of today’s philosophies of what constitutes good mental health care. The concept of an asylum as a home from home was central to his management: “Drugs are of course necessary in some cases, but moral treatment is essential to all and this is obtained chiefly by means of employment, amusement, pleasing associations and cheerful surroundings which act as medicine to the deceased mind” said the 50th Annual Report, back in 1888″  and the hospital became a self-sufficient community which nonetheless had strong ties to the village of Melton. Dr Kirkman couldn’t be more different to Dr Fuller, one of the narrators in Hope’s book.

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High Royds Hospital, Menston, West Yorkshire.

The Ballroom is Anna Hope’s second novel and it begins with the arrival of Ella Fay at the Sharston asylum in 1911. She is sent there because, after railing against the lack of light in the textiles mill where she works, she snaps and breaks one of the windows- a socially transgressive act in the eyes of her employers and her colleagues, albeit perfectly understandable and rational to us. John Mulligan is already a patient at Sharston, an Irishman suffering from depression provoked by the death of his daughter and his wife’s subsequent abandonment of him. When Ella and John meet at a Friday night dance in the asylum’s beautiful ballroom, they embark upon a slow-burn of a relationship, marked by surreptitious meetings outdoors and smuggled letters and encounters in the wild, expansive Yorkshire moors.

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The Ballroom by Anna Hope

Overseeing their care and to a certain extent, their fate, is Dr Charles Fuller, an ambitious yet inadequate medic who becomes slowly obsessed by the growing eugenics movement which advocated the social control and compulsory sterilisation of the poor and anyone with a mental illness or learning disability. In 1908, the newly appointed home secretary, Winston Churchill, was determined to solve the problem of what he referred to as  the“feeble-minded” – anyone who was deemed unable to self-determine. Churchill’s views on compulsory sterilisation crystallised and he began to circulate pamphlets on the subject among the cabinet. The Eugenics Society grew increasingly influential and in 1913 the Mental Deficiency Act established powers to incarcerate the “feeble-minded” in specially-built asylums. As we see in John and Ella’s story, the sexes lived separately and only met in strictly monitored meetings, in their case, the weekly dance and these impending laws threaten their relationship and very existence, in John’s case.

I asked Anna Hope about the clear parallels with todays social and political situation, not just in the UK but across Europe too, where cuts to health and social care have disproportionately impacted upon the poor and the mentally unwell and the language used to justify government policy has become ugly. “The welfare state; universal healthcare, access to education and greater social mobility are being eroded daily. Not just that, but I feel something even more insidious taking place; poverty has shifted in my lifetime from being something that should be ameliorated by a healthy government and society, to something that is perceived as the fault of those who find themselves poor. I think this is deeply dangerous and beneath the cuts to child benefits for instance, amongst many other cuts, there’s a disturbing echo, as you say, of eugenic policy,” she says.

As for the long view, Anna emphasises the importance of re-visiting the recent past in order to learn from it. We must guard against rose-tinted historiography too. “I think it’s a good time to look a little into our past and see what we were capable of” she says. “Churchill, for example, has been very well served by history, and for good reason, but if you look at his language as home secretary in 1911, in its insistence on ‘racial purity’ and the threat to the race from social degeneration it’s really not so very far from Hitler’s a few decades later.”

Do you think we lost as much as we gained from the abolition of the asylum system with regard to the purest meaning of the word? Have we forgotten that sometimes, some people do need a place of asylum while they recover, I ask Anna.

“That’s a really great question. Before I started researching I think my preconception, from reading lots of novels, about the Victorian and Edwardian asylum system was that once you were there you were there for life and the key was thrown away. Reading the casebooks gave me a different picture; there were many women for instance who were suffering from exhaustion or what sounded like post-natal depression, and who must have been working all hours in the mills or similar places, who simply needed a place to rest” she says.
“Following their stories in the casebooks I was really surprised and happy to read how many of them improved steadily over time with decent food, and rest and time away from work and families”, Anna adds. “So the asylum began to be a more nuanced, complex environment, not just this bleak, monolithic place from which no one ever emerged.”
Lisa Harris concurs with this and addresses some of the common stereotypes and misconceptions people held and still hold about an admission to an asylum. “A lot of people come to us and say “I’ve been tracing my family tree and I think I’ve found someone who was in an asylum and they get worried about this” she states, then looks back at her own initial reactions when she began looking through the St Audrys collection in the early days of developing the exhibit at the museum.
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The ‘Home From Home’ exhibition at Museum of East Anglian Life
“When I started this, I didn’t know very much about asylums at all and the first thing I found was this set of branding irons,” she says, pointing to a set of narrow branding irons displayed in a glass case. “Now the first thing that went through my head and our Learning Officers head was ‘Oh no, they branded the patients,  that is awful!’, but as we went on, we thought this cannot possibly be true. We had an over-active imagination and I do give a talk about the implications of this [for historical research]. But, in the light of the restraints we also found it was an understandable assumption and we were really pleased when we discovered the hospital had its own farm!”, she laughs wryly.
How many of us have assumed patients never left once admitted and lived in social seclusion, isolated from local villages, a source of fear, prejudice and trepidation to the locals? Not necessarily so, according to both Lisa and Anna although it would be naive to assume that the patients lived free from this. People with mental illness still have to negotiate the impact of stigma, whether this be socially, occupationally or politically [usually all three] and this prejudice is deeply rooted in the past. Lisa tells me more about St Audry’s and its position in the local community.
“The hospital was like a little city and the whole village of Melton relied on St Audrys. There was an overseeing of the patients as they went into the village and people were protective of them. That’s what humans do, what they should do. Look at the Second World War and how we cared for people. Would we still do that today? I hope so…” she says, quietly and goes on to touch upon the misconceptions many of us have about asylums whilst also warning against adopting a rose-tinted view of life in one.
” My concern was always that I would look at this with rose tinted glasses because its really easy to do that but the more you talk to people and the more stories you hear, you think actually, I’m not rose tinting it.And I spent months reading the medical records, and they are obviously written to sound good but as you read them you realise that on the whole, these people really did care and they wanted the patients to get better.”
You hear a lot of stories” Lisa smiles, warming to her theme. “St Audrys was a home for unmarried mothers- which was not necessarily true-and it was likely a misunderstanding of postnatal depression. People say ‘they went in and never came out.’ Well, the research I did showed that unless there was an issue with other illnesses like dementia or epilepsy for example, which weren’t really understood back then, people were admitted and usually came out within two years.”
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This bath was used for psychiatric treatments: from the ‘Home From Home’ exhibition

 

Anna tells me, that same lack of medical knowledge meant that “it certainly wasn’t a great time for mental health-care” and expands upon this. “I’d argue that it was perhaps a little better than the age of lobotomy and experimentation that came not so long after the First World War. When you look at the records for the pre-World War One asylums there were very few drugs used on the patients, which meant that many suffered without remission but also that they were awake and alive in a way that later patients perhaps weren’t allowed to be.” Certainly the discovery of Chlorpromazine in the fifties led to its being described as a chemical cosh and many people suffered from its terrible sedating side-effects.

And what of the ballroom which first inspired Anna Hope to write her novel? Well, interestingly I also discovered that St Audry’s had a ballroom too which is, for me,  one of the most unexpected counterpoints to the stereotype of an asylum as a dour and crepuscular place- all worthy, joyless therapies and rigid monitoring. I also discovered that ballrooms were common in Victorian mansions from the 1880s until around 1920, and these mansions were, after all, family homes which links beautifully to Dr Kirkman’s belief that St Audry’s should replicate the home as much as possible and be filled with activities and things that were not merely useful but also stimulated the patient aesthetically.

“The more we looked into it, the more we discovered that St Audrys acted as a home away from home and this was all of the principles that Dr Kirkman put into place about being able to step out of your day to day life and the drudgery and issues that worried you,” Lisa says.

“If you had a mental illness, [although obviously these illnesses were understood in a different way to how we interpret them today], you then could be taken somewhere that was safe. You could be kept warm, you could be fed and given the chance to keep yourself clean but also, be given something that would keep your mind active. So being involved in day to day running- making clothes, helping with washing, on the farm,. It kept you busy and gave you the time to heal, I suppose”, she adds, and her words very much reflect the  St Audry’s 28th annual report of 1865 which reports, in the purple prose of the Victorian age,”the admission is in dark insanity, the discharge in bright reason and  light.”

Interestingly, in The Ballroom, Dr Charles Fuller, is initially keen to encourage his patients to enjoy dance and music, playing the piano for them in the dayroom and when he is introduced to the new Ragtime music emanating from New Orleans by a local music-shop employee he attempts and fails, to embody its joyful and less boundaried spirit. I held my breath as I read this because Charles is as imprisoned, in his own way, as some of the patients but fails to recognise this and I really hoped he might break free. The psychic struggle he becomes embroiled in is something I asked Anna about, especially with regards to his lessening empathy for his patients and increased ‘othering’ of them in line with his belief that eugenics is the way forward. “I thought it was dramatically more interesting if he was deeply in denial about his own demons and desires. I think perhaps it’s impossible to become the sort of character Charles does without deep suppression of one’s empathy,” she says, something which chimes with Dr Kirkman’s own beliefs about how to care for the mentally unwell, some of which are inscribed on the walls of the exhibit in the Museum of East Anglian Life. “No restraint can be employed which is so powerful as tenderness. Watchfullness, activity, gentleness and that peculiar tact acquired by long training to replace contests of strength between patient and keeper.

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Vitrine containing nurses uniforms from St Audry’s hospital
Lisa is privy to the reactions of visitors to the St Audry’s exhibit.” I’ve come in and there have been groups of people in here and they start a conversation along the lines of ‘Oh, we worked at St Audrys and it was really like family, with everyone looking out for each other. Generations of the same families worked there” she explains. “Dr Kirkman started the hospital in the 1800s but his ideas and principles carried right on through.”
“We did a survey a couple of years ago” she adds, “and since we’ve opened, the St Audry’s exhibit has seemed like a room where people feel the need to come in and be quiet and we’re not that kind of museum, not a quiet museum really! But the survey said that people felt they needed to talk to each other about it and our work has opened up ways for them to do this.
“It has encouraged adults and children to talk about mental health.”
Sadly, it has been more challenging to encourage patients to come forward, the latter more understandably. “We struggle to get in touch with people who once were hospitalised” says Lisa. “We’ve done appeals but they don’t necessarily want to talk about it.”
There is pain here, I comment. Lisa nods. “This  exhibit has made our team more aware of mental health  issues, and more aware of how we each have our own needs. I think its one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on.”

The Ballroom is out now. 

The Museum of East Anglian Life website.

Related links: an oral history of a Suffolk psychiatric hospital

Museum images courtesy of The Museum of East Anglian Life, except where indicated.

Image of The Ballroom book cover, Anna Hope, the High Royds hospital, courtesy of Anna Hope/Transworld publishers.

The header image of West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum is courtesy Mark Davis / Guzelian