With my own WINMP (Work In Not-Much Progress) also set in a long-stay psychiatric hospital (and also with three third-person point of view characters), although eighty years later, I was keen and anxious to read The Ballroom. There was an extra edge for me when I discovered that the asylum, although not named in the novel, is, in all probability one I’ve visited for meetings, now converted into luxury apartments. But in my not unbiased opinion, this is a lovely story of romance in unusual circumstances, as well as the complexities and contradictions that have characterised mental health care since time immemorial. I’d forgotten about the eugenics angle, and was unaware that the underground cells I read about in Playthings was a feature of English hospitals.
While it’s something of a cliché to portray the staff as madder than the patients, this was extremely sensitively done, and the symbiotic relationship between them is something I’ve mentioned before. Even if you’re not interested in the history of psychiatric care, this novel is worth reading for the highly credible characterisation, with a fine balance of strengths and vulnerabilities in just about every one; for the sultry tension and claustrophobia of the summer heatwave; and for the sophisticated exploration of the dynamics of power. As someone who goes stir crazy if she can’t get out for a walk every couple of days, I strongly identified and empathised with Ella’s frustration as she slaves in the laundry while the men at least get to work outside. Although Charles is cast as the villain, I recognised his use and abuse of his work to avoid his own demons. Like the novel Goodhouse, while based on conditions that (fortunately) no longer exist, The Ballroom raises questions about the treatment of those who fail to conform to society’s norms. Thanks to Doubleday for my proof copy.
Dawnay refuses to be constrained by convention that deems that learning is harmful to women. In an age in which publishers are pilloried (literally, i.e. locked into a wooden framework and exposed to public abuse and ridicule) for printing material at odds with the message of the Bible, she dedicates herself to her research into the origins of life. As a “natural philosopher”, she says (p69):
science is a deity to me. There is no right or wrong when it comes to the truth; there is the fact and fiction, the truth and the error, and little else matters.
Soon her benefactor’s home proves too confining and Dawnay persuades him to let her set sail for Portugal, where she hopes to study the flora and fauna of the Faroe Islands. At the start of the journey, her strong opinions alienate her from the ship’s captain, until her bravery during a violent storm earns his respect, and more. Because of her, he tries a bit of science himself, improving the diet of the sailors to show that scurvy is not, as was previously assumed, due to the degeneracy of the lower classes, the result of idleness or a punishment from God (p99).
On the islands, Dawnay finds true joy in her discoveries, reminiscent of the Margaret Mead character in Lily King’s Euphoria. Yet, in the second half of the eighteenth century, still a hundred years before Darwin, the public is not ready for her mind-blowing conclusions. Earthquake and war cannot distract her from her scientific endeavours, but what about love?
In Dawnay Price, Rebecca Mascull has created a heroic historical female character surpassing even Liza, the adventurer of her debut, The Visitors. You can read her reflections on the challenges of writing Song of the Sea Maid here. Thanks to Hodder Headline for my review copy.