Anna Hope’s debut was one of those novels in the tidal wave of fiction set around the First World War back in 2014. Set in 1920, Wake stood out for me as being a cut above the others with its exploration of the way in which women’s lives had been affected by the war. I enjoyed it very much and was eager to read Hope’s next book, ever mindful of that tendency for second novels not to match excellent debuts. Thankfully, The Ballroom bucks that particular trend with its story of Ella and John, two inmates in an asylum, and the doctor who oversees their care over the course of 1911.
Charles Fuller has been employed more for his musical than his medical abilities. Sharston is run along progressive lines for its time. Its superintendent believes that a regime of self-sufficiency, gender segregation and music will help improve the mental health of his patients. Charles and his small band of musicians provide the accompaniment for the weekly dance in the beautiful ballroom on the only occasions that male and female inmates are allowed to meet. Ella has been newly admitted by Charles, having smashed a window in the mill that employed her as a spinner. Furious at her incarceration, she seems entirely sane soon realising that the only way to prove it is to keep her head down. Illiterate yet bright she strikes up a friendship with Clem a young woman of an entirely different class, committed by her family after her refusal to eat as a protest against their marriage plans for her. When finally picked for Friday’s dance, Ella feels awkward and clumsy but it is there that she meets John, admitted for ‘melancholia’ after the loss of his family and livelihood. When John learns of Ella’s yearning for freedom he offers to record what he sees in his work in the fields. These two find their way to a relationship which will have profound repercussions, not only for them but for Clem and Charles.
Hope alternates the narratives of these three characters, gradually unfolding their stories against a backdrop of national strikes, George V’s coronation and the genesis of what became the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act. Her descriptions of the asylum and its poor benighted inmates are both chilling and humane. Running through this compassionate novel is society’s perception of sanity and insanity, as relevant today as it was in 1911. Hope succeeds in engaging her readers’ sympathies for Charles whose initial embracing of the more progressive theories of his beloved Eugenics Society is eclipsed by his tortured personal experience until he’s brought to unthinkable actions. It took me a little while to find my way into The Ballroom despite its dramatic opening but once I had I found myself gripped by it, not to mention horrified at times – the Eugenics Society’s more moderate views felt uncomfortably close to today’s tabloids’ strident voices. It’s an engrossing novel, sobering in its revelation of the theories surrounding mental illness not so very long ago and made all the more so by the author’s note which tells us that it was ‘inspired by the true story of her Irish great-grandfather’.