Anna Hope, book review, England, eugenics, historical fiction, literary fiction, mental institutions, romance, social prejudice, twentieth century, Yorkshire
Review: The Ballroom, by Anna Hope
Random House, 2016. 313 pp. $27
Ella Fay feels so oppressed by the Yorkshire textile mill at which she works that she breaks a window in a frenzied fit. For her crime, and because this is England in 1911–when the lower classes aren’t deemed to have feelings, let alone to be worth understanding–she’s bundled off to Sharston, an institution on the moors.
Sharston is a desperate place that mingles the mentally disturbed with people who only seem so or who plainly aren’t, and whose only offense is poverty. But no matter how they got there, they know that no one leaves except feet first, about which there are many terrible rumors and some hard evidence, for a few men are assigned to dig the common graves.
John Mulligan is one, a man weighed down by promises he broke and wrong turns he made. But he’s sensitive and intelligent–far more than the asylum officials who keep him locked up–and you sense that something within yearns to break out and, if necessary to break heads.
But Sharston has one redeeming activity. Though the men and women are strictly segregated, once a week, those who’ve behaved themselves are allowed into the ballroom to dance. Through John’s eyes, you see the anticipation:
The men on John’s side disappeared off to the washrooms, and when they came back they had scrubbed faces and hair spat on and smoothed down. You could taste their excitement, thick and sticky, filling the air and leaving room for little else. It disturbed the far-gone ones on the other side, who got restless in their chairs and moaned and shouted out. John sat himself in the corner and took small shallow breaths, trying not to let it in; it was a terrible dangerous contagion, hope.
John and Ella dance, and from that springs an unlikely romance. What a tender plant it is, their love, for, if discovered, it will be uprooted; and meeting outside dancing hours is strictly against the rules. But John contrives to write Ella letters and smuggle them to her. At first, he only describes the sky and trees he sees during his work, because he knows Ella’s shut inside, as are all the women, which he considers an outrage. But what he doesn’t know is that Ella can’t read, and that she must ask her friend Clem to help her. (Clem is short for Clemency, an ironic name, for she receives none.) So Clem becomes Fay’s scribe, deriving perhaps too much vicarious pleasure from her role and inevitably forgetting where the boundaries lie.
It’s a brilliant touch, but no less so the character of Charles Fuller, the assistant medical officer. Fuller believes in eugenics, and as the novel opens, he’s struggling against the main intellectual current of his scientific faith, which says that enforced sterilization is the only way to preserve England. Otherwise, the nation will be overrun by the poor, the unfit, and the mentally ill, too depraved to know better than their savage ways, or even to care. It’s blood-curdling to read this tripe–even worse to know that such luminaries as Winston Churchill actually agreed–but at first, Fuller objects, because he believes that he can “save” John Mulligan and burnish his own career by doing so. So he makes many observations about John, intending to write a paper contesting that certain promising asylum inmates may, in fact, be rehabilitated.
However, Fuller has a deeper conflict. He’s a repressed homosexual, and he believes that if he followed his desires, not quite expressed but tangible nonetheless, he’d be filthy, dangerous, and depraved. In other words, he’d be no better than Sharston’s population, whom he holds himself above with a tenacity that shows how inadequate he feels (and once you meet his parents, you know why). Consequently, since he can never follow his heart or be happy, he hates anyone who can. John and Ella, be warned.
I criticized Hope’s previous novel, Wake, for the shallowness of the male characters. Nothing could be further from the truth in The Ballroom. Fuller, John, and John’s friend, Dan Riley, are complete people, and several minor male characters come across strongly as well. I think Hope relies too heavily on coincidences, of which one’s okay, but three’s a crowd. Similarly, Fuller’s behavior doesn’t always seem consistent with his character, as if his erratic boomerangs served the author’s purpose too conveniently. And, as usual, I wonder why Hope needs her prologue, which, also as usual, compromises the tension somewhat.
Nevertheless, The Ballroom is a marvelous novel, full testimony to the power of love, and I highly recommend it.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.