Her closeness to her lawyer father has given her a respect for facts. The tales heard at her mother’s knee have fired her passion for story. So, after her father’s sudden death and her mother’s ill-advised marriage to a violent drunkard means the teenager must earn a living, a career as a reporter seems a logical step.
At the end of the nineteenth century, respectable women weren’t expected to work, and especially not in a male-dominated environment like a newspaper office. So Nellie Bly – her pen name – must fight prejudice to be taken on by the Pittsburgh Dispatch. But she soon outgrows the provincial newspaper and takes her passion and her ambitions to New York.
Although generally concerned for the underdog, Nellie shares society’s prejudices against people we now call mentally ill. So, on the boat across to the island, the other patients are her greatest terror. She soon discovers her mistake.
Cold, starved and filthy, and monitored by sadistic nursing staff, the patients are generally too scared and apathetic to threaten the new arrival. What’s more, some seem to have been put away for the flimsiest of reasons and are no more mad than she is. The doctors are generally indifferent to the patients’ plight, although Nellie is fortunate in Dr Ingram, an advocate of the new talking therapy, although his interest in her case does little to alleviate the suffering. Punished for challenging the nurses, Nellie fears the regime will drive her mad.
Despite my knowledge of the horrors of asylum history, this was a painful read at times. But one with a happy ending, as Nellie does leave and write her articles, contributing to mental health reform. (Although it was another hundred years before the asylum system was universally abolished.) A great addition to my collection on asylum lit, I was gifted my copy by the author from a promotion on Isabel Costello’s Literary Sofa. You might also be interested in Louisa’s debut novel, The Lodger, also about the pioneering young woman around the same period.
At first she struggled but it was futile: there were more of them and the door was locked. Curled up in a ball, she tried to protect her head. She howled when they kicked her in the kidneys instead.
Why had she embarked on this crazy project? She could die on the island and none of her family would know. As another blow landed, death seemed the only escape.
Her body went limp. Pain transformed to buzzing in her ears. Feather-light, she floated above the rag-doll version of her. She would survive to scream her story to the world.