They’ll send you to Sharston, and you’ll never come out. Was she mad, then, for breaking a window? Mad for kicking and biting those men? Was that all it took?
Set in Yorkshire in 1911 The Ballroom by Anna Hope uses a forbidden romance to examine the controversial history of mental asylums, the ease with which people were committed and eugenics. Drawing from familial history, Hope uses the sparse facts of her great-grandfathers residence at an asylum to craft a dark, almost Gothic, tale.
Ella is a young wool spinner who was brought to Sharston as penance for a small crime.
Ella looked down at her hands, clasped into fists; she stretched her fingers on the table: eight of them, two thumbs. But they did not look like her own. She turned them palms up and stared. She wished for a mirror. Even that old piece of cracked rubbish they had at the end of the spinning sheds. The one they’d all elbow each other out of the way for on a Friday. Even that. Just to see she was still real. She looked up. Doors. Nurses standing at each like jailers, carrying one of those big rounds of keys. Sharston Asylum.
John is a brooding romantic who has spent many years at Sharston after a breakdown as a result of events that are vaguely alluded to.
John lifted his shovel to the hard winter earth. And he thought of where he was. And how long he had been there. And what was simple broke apart and became a shattered, sharded thing.
Charles works at the asylum as a part of the assistant medical staff. His passions lie in music and, as the story develops, eugenics.
And when he played, when he poured out his soul to the flaming June air, Charles was no longer himself, no longer the lonely ten-year-old who made up friends to play with, no longer the twelve-year-old who was sent away to school and cried himself to sleep, no longer the twenty-two-year-old who had returned in disgrace to a house that he hated. When he played, he was something other, something that reached, something that did not disappoint.
The stories of Ella, John and Charles intertwine and wrap themselves around one central theme- the ballroom- which becomes a place of musical release for Charles and a place of romance for Ella and John.
And then, sitting at the dead center of the asylum, forming, in so many ways, Charles had come to feel, its heart, something entirely unexpected: a magnificent ballroom, a hundred and fifty feet long and fifty feet wide, with a stage at one end.
The dances held in he ballroom are seen by Charles as a chance for the sick and tormented of the asylum to be healed and a chance for him to prove his worth and make an impact on the eugenics community.
In truth, Charles thought, it came down to this: One either believed people could change or one did not. And Charles was, by nature, an optimistic man.
However, they become something more, passionate and forbidden, though still healing, once Ella and John come to know one another.
When the heat of the evening and the heat of the dancing were at their height, he made his way toward her. Her face was flushed with sweat and in the candlelight seemed to shine. He felt a shifting inside him at the sight of her, something falling, finding a new place.
As things progress between Ella and John, Charles begins to experience change in his thoughts towards the population of Sharston which lead him towards a variety of maddening obsession all his own.
So. Here was the nub of it. And while absolutely seeing the problem— Sharston itself was bursting at the seams with the poor and mad— Charles was not so sure of the means by which to address it. It seemed certain that the feeble-minded should be prevented from breeding. But how to proceed from this— how to define that category and how to go about that prevention— was something about which Charles was unsure. It was the idea of enforcement that sat uneasily with him.
These changes culminate in a frenzied attempt by Charles on one of the inmates of Sharston and the simultaneous freeing of another.
She should go. Today. Tonight. Wait till it was dark and go. A chance like this would not come again. But then she would climb up, and look out, and see him in the fields. And the not running was a pain all over her body. But the pain of leaving was worse. And she was caught and pulled between the two.
The grim qualities of Sharston will paint a vivid picture of asylums during the 1900’s. The love shared between Ella and John is a glimmer of hope and respite in an otherwise haunting novel.
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A review copy of this title was provided by Random House via Netgalley.