Thursday, July 22, 2010

Outside the Wall: Wildthorn by Jane Eagland

"...Letting women register for medical training! Pshaw! Whatever next?"

Charles picked up his glass of wine and appeared to consider it carefully. "A girl who is educated beyond what is necessary for her role as wife and mother cannot possibly reach the perfect ideal of womanhood."

Uncle Bertram shook his head. "These women--they hardly deserve the name! They're a disgrace to their sex! Aping men!"

Leaping to my feet, I shouted, "How can you say such stupid things!... They're not a disgrace to their sex but a fine example."

"Hoity toity, Miss!" said Uncle Bertram, red in the face. "That's no way to speak to your elders and betters."

I shook off Aunt Phyllis' hand. "This is who I am. This is what I believe. And I tell you something--I want to be a doctor and it doesn't matter what my brother or any of you say, somehow, I don't know how, I will do it."

Like the whalebone corset which keeps her from taking a deep breath, sixteen-year-old Louisa Cosgrove has always struggled under the Victorian limits set for women. Her physician father recognizes her intellect and drive and privately encourages her to follow in his footsteps, but her mother despairs of her wayward daughter, uninterested in becoming a wife and mother. But with her father's sudden death, she finds herself without an ally and mentor, and when, on a visit to her beloved cousin to be fitted for a bridesmaid dress for Grace's wedding to the pompous Charles, Louisa loses her temper and reveals her real ambitions to her shocked family, who recoil from her in disdain and unbelief.

Shortly afterward she finds herself bundled off, with her mother's consent, supposedly to become a companion to the young sister of brother Tom's wealthy classmate. Louisa goes along, under protest, but there is something disturbing about the vaguely hostile chaperon her mother hires, something which arouses Louisa's fears with her distant manner and inability to meet her eyes.

Her cloak is worn..., but in her pinched monkey face, her eyes are bold, inquisitive. And she has hardly spoken a word, not yesterday all the way down in the train from the north, not this morning on the journey from Liverpool Street by rail and then this carriage. But she has never stopped watching me. Even without looking at her, I know she is watching me now.

Louisa's fears are justified. Her destination, Wildthorn Hall, turns out not to be the country estate of a wealthy family, but an asylum for mentally insane women. Pre-registered under the name of Lucy Childs, Louisa's protests against her new name and the diagnosis of insanity caused by studies which overtax the fragile female brain and her protestations that she is sane are offered as proof of the reason for her commitment. Installed first in the "First Gallery," for manageable patients, Louisa learns through sympathetic attendants that only the unknown family member who committed her has the authority to free her. Her attempts to contact her family and ultimately to escape by night fail, and she finds herself strapped down for hours, denied food and water, and then confined to a ward of raving lunatics, the dreaded "Fifth Gallery" whose filth and bedlam is feared by patients and attendants alike. Only one staff member, a kind local girl named Eliza, believes her story and tries to help her. Try to get sent to the infirmary, Eliza counsels her.

And so she begins a desperate plan. Louisa obtains through Eliza a bottle of Fowler's solution, a popular hand remedy which she knows to contain arsenic and uses her father's medical teachings to calibrate a dose that will make her deathly ill and get her into a place where escape is at least possible. The plan is dangerous: an overdose of the solution can kill her, and even if she reaches the infirmary she must flee at night and find a way out of Wildthorn Hall and its walls. Convinced that her entire family believes her mentally unstable, Louisa knows that she will likely be on her own even if she succeeds in her plan. But she also knows that to remain at Wildthorn will surely be worse than death.

Jane Eagland's Wildthorn (Houghton Mifflin, 2010), published first in the UK and forthcoming in the U.S. in September, is a gripping cross-genre novel. Part Victorian Gothic, part psychological mystery, part family drama, and part improbable romance, this novel weaves Louisa's story into the fabric of Victorian English society at the time women were first gaining the opportunity to gain education and an independent life in the professions. Characterization is strong, the plot offers many strange and unforeseen twists, which, although deftly foreshadowed, may surprise even the closest reader, including the identify of the family member responsible for Louisa's imprisonment. The theme, the empowerment of people in a society which denies their ability and individuality, comes through strong and clear, although the introduction of a romantic involvement between Louisa and Eliza may trouble some readers. But for young adult readers who will enjoy this engrossing look back at conditions little more than a hundred years ago, this view of the powerlessness of women in the family and in society and the treatment of the mentally ill will both entertain and enlighten.

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