"She writes with passion and power and perception about the effects on the huge range of unfortunates tossed into its pit of despair."
Those living in the West Riding of Yorkshire as recently as the 1970s spoke of a place called ‘High Royds’ in hushed tones, and with fear. The huge, grim building was seen as a massively threatening and intimidating place.
With good reason. Because ‘High Royds’, once known as Menston Asylum, was a dreadful prison where people from all walks of life who somehow didn’t ‘fit in’ were incarcerated.
The Ballroom is an extraordinary book. Anna Hope has used the story of her own great-great-grandfather and his terrible time in Menston – re-named here as Sharston Asylum – to tell us about a disgraceful, even disgusting, interval in early 20th Century British social history.
In the early 1900s, eugenics was the new social engineering tool on the block. Surely the dregs of society – the drunks, the addicts, the so-called ‘feeble minded’ – could be somehow ‘bred out’? By 1908 Winston Churchill certainly thought so. He championed ‘compulsory sterilisation’ for the newly-defined underclass. He distributed pamphlets to his cabinet colleagues arguing for it. His arguments failed, but in 1913 the Mental Deficiency Act empowered the state to incarcerate the ‘feeble minded’ in purpose-built asylums. There, men and women would be forcibly kept apart so that they could not reproduce. Sterilisation by segregation. Eugenics by other means.
Hope’s Sharston Asylum is the crucible of this dreadful experiment in social engineering. She writes with passion and power and perception about the effects on the huge range of unfortunates tossed into its pit of despair. But The Ballroom is a wonderful and uplifting book – because it is testament to the power of the human spirit to overcome the most desperate of circumstances and arise shining, re-born, and triumphant.
"The Ballroom is moving, powerful and absorbing. One of the great new reads of 2016."
What a terrific and hugely unusual love story this is. The central character is Ella, a young Yorkshire woman who has been committed to a grim early 20th century asylum for… well, for what, exactly? Breaking a window. Yup, Ella gets shoved into the asylum because she has dared to rebel against the gruesome working conditions in the spinning room at Lumb Lane Mill. She smashes a window and then, when the local police arrive to arrest her, she lashes out in desperation and fury and assaults the officers. It turns out that now she’s been sacked, she doesn’t have the means to support herself.
But no magistrates’ fine or binding over or short prison sentence for her. No. Ella, for reasons we will discover, is sent to the local lunatic asylum. Sexes are segregated there. Society doesn’t want the likes of her reproducing more little rebels like her, does it?
But although the sexes are segregated, there is an exception – the weekly dance in The Ballroom, a surprisingly elegant and luxurious venue where inmates get to mix one night a week. And Ella Fay meets Irishman John Mulligan.
Mulligan has been committed because he is simply depressed after the death of his daughter and the breakdown of his marriage.
The two fall in love and in a passionate, beautiful relationship, Ella falls pregnant.
Hope introduces a wonderfully sinister, failed character; Dr Charles Fuller, the asylum doctor who is probably more disturbed than all of the inmates combined. His role in the story is darkly pivotal. When he learns of Ella’s pregnancy, he attempts to have her lover sterilised.
The Ballroom is moving, powerful and absorbing. One of the great new reads of 2016.
Here are a selection of the reviews for The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend
"Exquisitely good…Confirms her as a writer of immense power…Sensitive, engrossing and highly recommended."
"A poignant and sensitive love story…shot through with insidious violence…Hope treats her subject and her characters with the care of an attentive therapist…skilfully and subtly dissects our notions of madness…The writing is elegant and insightful; she writes beautifully about human emotion, landscape and weather.Superb"
"The Ballroom is a beautifully wrought novel, a tender, heartbreaking and insightful exploration of the longings that survive in the most inhospitable environments."