I enjoy reading about leading ladies as much as the next leading lady. However, I do prefer reading about them in a historical context, in the words of Jennifer Donnelly, Libba Bray and now, Jane Eagland.
Victorian feminists are great aren’t they? Seventeen-year-old Louisa Cosgrove is one of them. Ever since she was young, she has been eager to learn, particularly about science and medicine. Her dream is to become a doctor, like her father. “A woman becoming a doctor? They’ll want to become lawyers next!” – uttered a secondary character whose name I can’t be bothered to remember. It was almost unheard of for a woman to want something other than being a wife and looking after her children while making occasional social visits in the Victorian times. In fact, a woman could legally be proclaimed “mad” for even the slight deviation from social norms of the time – a situation which is unfortunately still prevalent in some countries. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens to Louisa – her dreams and aspirations turn into nightmares when she is sent to Wildthorn Hall – an asylum for women. Labelled a lunatic, she is deprived of all freedom, privacy and even her real name. She is, however, a smart girl and figures out soon enough that there is something more going on than a mere clerical error. To her horror, she realises that nobody is going to help her get out of there and she has to rely on her own tenacity and knowledge to escape. Befriending a young nurse called Eliza seems to be the only ray of hope for Louisa in the dreadful place that is Wildthorn Hall.
In a way, “Wildthorn” can be considered a gothic novel, with the main setting being an old mansion in the middle of English countryside and containing many dreadful, bone-chilling secrets within itself. Gothic novels have, since I discovered “Jane Eyre” in school, held a special place in my heart. Wildthorn, however, is a lot scarier than Manderley or Thornfield.
From the very first page, Eagland really focuses her writing energy on establishing the atmosphere in the book and it truly pulls you in. The majority of the book is set in the asylum; however, a few chapters in part 1 focus on establishing Louisa’s backstory and are very telling of the Victorian times and social structures. Louisa is constantly pushed into becoming a proper lady by her mother and her brother, as well as her aunt. However, her dad understands her free spirit and tries his best not to quash it – he has no problem letting Louisa learn about whatever she wants and supports her ambition to become a medical practitioner, even though he understands perfectly that most of his colleagues would be appalled by the idea. Her father’s death, however, puts an end to things and eventually leads to Louisa’s imprisonment in Wildthorn.
The horrors of the asylum are primarily represented by the head nurse, Fanny Weeks, who is nearly as “pleasant” as nurse Ratchet from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. She is the main cause of Louisa beginning to doubt herself and thinking that someone is trying to drive her mad. Her spirit remains unbroken, however, which is a testament to Eagland’s character-driven narration. Yes, the atmosphere and the setting are masterfully conducted, but the real center of the book is Louisa’s character. I really found myself rooting for her and wanting her to actually be able to pursue her dream. I especially loved the way she used her knowledge of science during her various attempts to escape. I figured out the reason for her imprisonment about halfway through the book, but I really liked how realistic her actions and emotions were towards the end – when one is in a situation like she is in, it is very often difficult to think rationally. Asylums were, back then, an equivalent of imprisonment, and I think that SPOILER the fact that Louisa considered her feelings for her female cousin to be the reason for her imprisonment END SPOILER says a lot about the situation back then. The horrible truth is that even today, one can be incarcerated for expressing their feelings. Eagland has really brought the injustices of the time into perspective. My rating of “Wildthorne” is 8.5/10.
Louisa – she is kind, loving, brave, smart, and ready to fight for what she believes in – even if it means getting locked up in an asylum and chained to a dirty bed. After all, if you know how to use your knowledge, you can do pretty much anything – if you have a beautiful ally within, all the better. One shouldn’t, after all, attempt to break out of prisons and madhouses alone!
Character who gets the most development:
Louisa – at the start of the book, she is very outspoken and does not, due to her upbringing, know around whom it is better to stay quiet. However, she develops into a very intelligent and cunning young woman as the book progresses. I also liked how Eagland didn’t focus her entire storyline on her sexual orientation – she’s a character that happens to be gay, not a “gay character”. Romance still played a good part in the book though, and I enjoyed it, even though I don’t normally like romantic books.
Least favourite character:
Tom Cosgrove and Fanny Weeks – they are both despicable human beings.
Louisa’s medical report lists the following factors that show that a woman is insane:
“An interest in medical matters inappropriate for one of her age and sex”
“A neglect of appearance and personal toilet, and wearing unsuitable clothing for a young lady of her status”
“Excessive book-reading and study leading to a weakening of the mind”
“Desiring to ape men by nursing an ambition to be a doctor” lawyer
“Self-assertiveness in the face of male authority”
“Obstinancy and displays of temper”
“Going about unchaperoned, for exampple, travelling to London alone”
I highlighted the traits that I tend to display on a daily basis. Good thing I don’t live in the Victorian times!
Louisa – Anna Popplewell
Eliza – Jennifer Ellison
You might like “Wildthorn” if you liked:
“Gemma Doyle Trilogy” by Libba Bray;
“Tea Rose Trilogy” by Jennifer Donnelly;
“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte
“Wide Sargasso Sea” by Jean Rhys