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.
Set over the heatwave summer of 1911, the end of the Edwardian era, THE BALLROOM is a tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.
Trigger warnings: mental illness, eating disorders, self harm, suicide.
In this novel, Anna Hope brings together moving prose, an interesting setting and characters which are unforgettable to create a truly beautiful and tragic story of hope, love and mental health in the early 19th century.
The novel is told through the perspectives of three different characters; Ella, John and Charles. Ella is a young woman who has had a hard life from the get go, suffering abuse at the hands of her father and toiling away in a cotton mill with no other prospects. It’s hard and mindless work, but Ella gets on with it until one day she is overcome with the futility of it all and breaks a window in the mill, which causes the authorities to place her in Sharston Asylum.
John is another patient in the asylum, a kind and sensitive Irishman who is sent there after some difficult events in his past. Charles Fuller is a doctor at the asylum who treats the patients through the art of music, curious to see whether this will have a positive or calming effect on them. Over the course of the novel however, he develops a twisted obsession with the science of Eugenics. Eugenics is the idea that human genetics can be improved through reproduction of certain individuals with desirable characteristics and the forced sterilisation of people with ‘feeble’ genes. Charles bizarre obsession casts a dark path for him and the other patients…
One of the novels biggest strengths are the compelling characters which Hope so skilfully crafts. I genuinely felt for the characters as they go through trial and tribulation within the confines of the asylum. Ella is placed there and kept against her will like many of the other patients, but reading as she tries to maintain her spirit and sense of self was so powerful.
I also found Clem to be a really interesting and complex character. She comes from a wealthy family and is a private patient, meaning her family is paying for her to be kept in the asylum. Unlike the other patients, she is educated, sharp witted and very intelligent. Due to her status, she is allowed some home comforts like the ability to wear her own clothes rather than the dull uniform and is also able to have a collection of her well loved books to peruse at her own will. When Ella meets Clem, they both think they have finally found a friend, but pretty quickly their friendship becomes quite toxic. Their dynamic was interesting because as much as they both grow to need each other in different ways, there’s always an imbalance and unpredictability with Clem which Ella finds unsettling.
Then there’s Charles, or Dr Fuller, he starts off as a character we can understand or even sympathise with but he undergoes such a drastic shift that he is almost unrecognisable from the amiable man we meet at the start. Charles is a complex character as well, he deals with a lot of denial and repression, which I think is to do with his sexuality. He never gives words to these feelings or frustration but it’s clear that he channels all this into fervour for the Eugenics movement and scientific advancement.
Another element of the novel which I enjoyed was the touching love story between John and Ella. After a failed attempt at escape, Ella crosses paths with John who helps her before she is carted back into the asylum. From that moment on he is captivated by her spirit and beauty and as they dance together in the ballroom each week and exchange covert letters, they fall deeper and deeper in love. In such a hopeless environment as the asylum, it was heart wrenching to read as these two characters find a small bit of escape and hope in each other.
As well as the characters and the love story keeping me invested in the story, the novel also portrays the many misunderstandings surrounding mental health and illnesses in the 19th century. It’s not widely known or taught that Eugenics was a movement that had strong roots in both Britain and the USA with many prominent politicians and figures backing it, such as Churchill for example. Hope delves into a dark or forgotten part of history here and it’s so disturbing to think about.
It’s also notable that Hope dedicated the book to her great-great- grandfather, John Mullarkey, who was actually placed in an asylum in 1909, suffering from depression, where he sadly later passed away in 1918. This added another layer to the novel for me and a personal touch from the author, which made it even more significant and moving.
It’s also so sad to read how the patients are treated as inferior or sub human simply because they have depression or psychosis, or even an eating disorder. The many practices such as tube feeding and solitary confinement to name a couple violate every single human right and it’s indicative of how far we’ve come in terms of understanding mental illness. Although I believe we definitely have a long way to go to erase stigma and improve care for those suffering, it’s sobering to look back at the past and recognise how terrible it used to be.
Overall, The Ballroom is a book which is both memorable and poignant and I’m so glad to have discovered Anna Hopes wonderful writing, I’ll definitely be reading her other book Wake very soon. I would recommend this novel to fans of historical fiction, romance with darker themes which echo real life history.
Until next time,