(Okay, this is not even a good pun, but I couldn’t help myself – it’s been a long week)
The fact is that the book is set in an asylum close to the Yorkshire moors at the beginning of the century. And that 1911 had more than 2 months where British temperatures didn’t go below 30 degrees Celsius without a drop of rain. Knowing how grumpy I get when there’s an official heat wave in Paris, no wonder that people were having quite a short fuse and rather erratic behaviors.
It took me a while to figure out where I first heard about this book: from Victoria from Eve’s Alexandria. She pointed out to this book that was presented on Netgalley, saying that it was one of the best she’d read in the year so far, and although I was already reading 4-5 books in parallel (depending of the mood and the time of day), I didn’t hesitate to take one more. Some do binge-watching on Netflix, I do binge-download on Netgalley, and then I feel terribly guilty not to review them timely.
What appealed to me was that the unique setting and the fact that Victoria conveyed the impression that the book was both finely crafted and not too depressing (I’m paraphrasing here). Needless to say, Victoria was right! I was totally won over by the book.
It’s centered on three people who are stuck in this weird place from Spring to Autumn 1911. The post-face states that although the particular place is fictional, Hope drew her inspiration from a real place that was called the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum and that had a grand ballroom to entertain the people locked in there. At the end of the Victorian era the middle class was looking at the working class with both fear and horror: people who were destitute were deficient and potentially dangerous. Revolt of any kind, or refusal to conform to social norms were quick to be assimilated to hysteria (for women) or mental illness.
The story is quite emotional and bleak at times, but still doesn’t bask in the gloom and misery. Every character has a personal background that lets you understand even their failures or bad actions. The plot is built on alternate points of view, and things move along at a quiet pace but there’s enough tension to sustain interest despite changing from one person to the next. The different approaches to mental illness and the individual trajectory of the self-righteous, repressed young doctor made me want to read again about Freud and Charcot. The sexist accusation of hysteria thrown against educated women was also at the center of the novel I recently read on the fire at Bazar de la Charité, but where Nohant’s novel was too black-and-white, The Ballroom achieves depth and complexity. The social commentary on women working in textile factories reminded me of North and South, and I really appreciated the balance between historical research and romance.