She’d heard of it. Since she was small. If you ever did anything stupid: the asylum. For the lunatics. The paupers.
They’ll send you to Sharston, and you’ll never come out.
1911. Ella and John are patients at a mental asylum on the edge of the North Yorkshire moors. The morning after Ella’s incarceration she’s taken to see Doctor Fuller to be formally admitted.
‘It says here, Miss Fay, that yesterday morning you attempted to damage a machine in the factory in which you are employed.’ The doctor was looking at her again, a keenness to him now.
‘I’m not mad.’
‘Do you deny you did this?’
How to explain? How to speak of what she had seen – of the women and the machines and the windows that had blocked everything out. It had been so clear then but would be muddy before this man, she knew.
Before her initial assessment is complete, Ella makes a run for it, out of the unlocked front door and down the hill. She almost makes it to the lane but slips in the mud in front of two men digging a hole. Those men are Dan and John.
Dan was a sailor for twenty years. Full of tales about Norah Carney – possibly a legend – and songs of the sea, after two years John still doesn’t know why Dan’s in the asylum.
John’s an inmate because circumstances left him destitute. He turned up at the asylum after several weeks living outside.
John and Ella’s stories progress in parallel – her slow realisation that she has no choice other than to submit to the system, making friends with a woman called Clem and working in the laundry; him continuing to dig holes, dealing with taunts about his nationality (Irish) and coming under scrutiny from the doctor – until a fortnight has passed and they meet again in the ballroom of the asylum on a Friday evening where the patients are taken and allowed to dance.
And, then, sitting at the dead centre of the asylum, forming, in so many ways, Charles had come to feel, its heart, something entirely unexpected: an immense ballroom, a hundred feet long and fifty feet wide, with a stage at one end.
Fine stained glass was set in the sixteen high, arched windows. Birds and brambles painted upon it. Summer light pooled upon the sprung wooden dance floor. Above, an arcaded gallery stretched the length of the room, the ceiling gently curved, was panelled with gold.
Charles, Doctor Fuller, is the third voice in the story. After scraping through his medical degree, bored of lectures he’d skipped to do music practice or attend concerts at Wigmore Hall, he’d applied for a job at the asylum rather than follow his father’s rigid instructions as to how he’d spend his days in order to retake his examinations and excel. When the novel begins, he’s lived in his tiny room within the asylum walls and tended to the patients for five years.
When he sees a call for papers for the First International Eugenics Congress, he goes against the superintendent and decides to write on the benefits of music and segregation, believing this might be ‘A chance, perhaps, to take his place in the pantheon of superior men’.
What’s really impressive about The Ballroom is Hope’s characterisation of her three protagonists and Clem, Ella’s friend. She creates characters so fully rounded, so utterly believable and in doing so makes you question who should be incarcerated and who should be free. Of course, by doing so through a young, poor woman, a destitute Irish man, a young, educated private patient and a middle class doctor with secrets of his own, Hope incorporates questions of class, circumstance, power and chance. It’s very difficult to read this novel and not see her themes and ideas echoed in today’s political rhetoric on those living in poverty.
There are some very dark moments in this novel – the climax continues to haunt me over a month later – but this is balanced by the developing relationship between Ella and John, the moments in the ballroom and the landscape, the Yorkshire moors almost a character in its own right, providing a taste of fresh air amidst the claustrophobia of the asylum.
The Ballroom is a beautiful, gripping, heart-wrenching, thought-provoking book. I was so enthralled, I read it in an evening, unwilling to put it down. Following Hope’s impressive debut, Wake, it marks her out as one of our best contemporary novelists.
Thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.