After Anna Hope’s justifiably feted debut Wake, there’s been palpable excitement on Twitter about her follow-up The Ballroom, so I was delighted to receive a review proof from the lovely people at Transworld. Set in the heatwave of 1911, it tells the story of John and Ella, two inmates of Sharston Asylum in Yorkshire. Kept segregated according to gender along with the other inmates, they first encounter one another during Ella’s unsuccessful escape attempt shortly after she has been sectioned, then again during the asylum’s weekly ballroom dances. Their meeting will change not only theirs, but the lives of many around them.
John, an Irishman sectioned after the death of his daughter and the breakdown of his marriage, begins passing Ella letters, which simply describe the world outside the asylum – the fields he tends, the trees around the moors and the swallows in the sky which as a woman, she is locked away from. Between the touchingly simple correspondence that develops, and their weekly dances, a romance blossoms.
The story is told from the point of view of both John and Ella, but also that of Charles Fuller, the asylum doctor. Initially an idealistic man, and a firm believer in the restorative powers of music, Charles is behind the weekly dances, and regularly plays music to the inmates. He also is very interested in eugenics, though doesn’t sit on the extreme fringes of the movement. In many ways, although more unacceptable today, Charles’s views aren’t a million miles away from those found in certain tabloid columns, or from the more right-wing politicians. However, throughout the book, as John and Ella lift each other out of their melancholy, Charles develops an obsession with John, which will lead eventually to tragedy, as the stifling heatwave appears to contribute to his breakdown.
Most books that I’ve read set in asylums in this era tend to focus on wives wrongly imprisoned so that their unscrupulous husbands may take possession of their fortune. The Ballroom differs in that it looks at the shocking treatment of people suffering a genuine mental breakdown just a hundred years ago. It was also fascinating to read about the eugenics movement, which I had no idea was so widespread. Far from the preserve of extreme-right politicians, many figures on the left were enthusiastic about it, and often by extension, forced sterilisation – from the founders of the Fabian Society, George Bernard Shaw and Beveridge. The Manchester Guardian and the New Statesman too were great supporters. The horrors of the Holocaust appear to have been what caused most to recoil from the idea.
An often uneasy and unflinching read, The Ballroom is beautiful book with a touching love story at its centre.
The Ballroom by Anna Hope is published 11th February by Transworld