Wildthorn by Jane Eagland

Seventeen-year-old Louisa Cosgrove longs to break free from her respectable life as a Victorian doctor’s daughter. But her dreams become a nightmare when Louisa is sent to Wildthorn Hall: labeled a lunatic, deprived of her liberty and even her real name. As she unravels the betrayals that led to her incarceration, she realizes there are many kinds of prison. She must be honest with herself – and others – in order to be set free. And love may be the key…

From the blurb, I was expecting a different sort of story. I thought there might be a chance that Louisa would indeed be mad, which would make her an unreliable narrator. Then, the reader would need to parse everything Louisa said to determine which parts of her story were true and which ones were false. However, the story is a lot more straightforward than that. Louisa has been unknowingly sent to Wildthorn, an asylum for the mentally ill and insane, by the people she trusted to look out for and care for her. For the first two thirds of the book, the story alternates between Louisa’s present incarceration at Wildthorn and her past, starting with her childhood and going up to the time she’s committed.

From the first couple of chapters, it becomes pretty clear the direction the story is headed in. As a child, Louia is a proper Victorian English mother’s worst nightmare. She’d rather play with her brother’s toys, conduct scientific experiments, and study medicine under her father than do the activities expected of a proper lady. She’s constantly told that who she is and what she does is wrong and a danger to proper female sensibilities. As such, it becomes clear that her un-feminine interests and behavior are the reasons she’s sent to Wildthorn in the first place. It’s a black-and-white portrayal of gender and insanity in this time.

The story itself was not badly conceived and the writing was engaging and fast-paced. However, especially considering how I originally thought the story would be told, I couldn’t help but think it was somewhat simplistic. I know it’s not fair to judge a book on what you thought it would be versus what it actually is, but I still wished this story had been told differently. The “point” was that in this time and place, people could and did use mental illness and insanity to explain away why their mothers/sisters/daughters weren’t acting as they were supposed to and to discredit their words and actions. Still, I thought this story could have been more eerie and nuanced if there were the possibility that Louisa did have a mental illness of some sort. It would have helped in exploring that line in how people and societies determine who’s “normal” and “sane” and what the criteria is and how ideas of gender contributed to those sorts of assignations. (My academic side is showing.) After looking online, it turns out this book is inspired by the true-life story of a sane woman who was incarcerated for madness. I understand what the author was trying to do, but the execution did not work for me.

That being said, Louisa’s own story was engaging enough. I especially enjoyed the flashbacks and seeing how Louisa’s interest in medicine develops and culminates in her desire to go to medical school in order to become a doctor. The parts that take place in the asylum were suitably creepy and horrific with how the attendants debased and actively mistreated the inhabitants. A common theme throughout is how Louisa’s words and wishes are never listened to, either because she’s a girl or because people think she’s insane, and therefore no one needs to listen to her or believe anything she says. A “mad” girl who says she’s sane is about as believable as a girl who says she understands science. I liked how this parallel was portrayed. I was also really happy with the unexpected, but no less appreciated, realization of Louisa’s that she loves women and the developing romance between Louisa and Eliza, an attendant at Wildthorn. I thought the author did a good job keeping Louisa’s feelings separate from her other contrary, unfeminine attitudes and actions. In other words, it was clear that her liking women didn’t stem from not being a proper lady; the two were mutually exclusive.

This isn’t a bad book and it does what it intends to do well. My problems with the book stem from the fact that it wasn’t the story I wanted to read. It was more straightforward and clear-cut than I’d have liked, and I maintain my belief that actual madness would have benefited the story overall. For anyone who isn’t familar with gender and mental illness in Victorian England, this is a good book to start out with. Otherwise, this book feels all too familiar and repetitious.

Disclosure – library


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