A foreboding asylum on the edge of the Yorkshire moors seems an unlikely place for a ballroom, and an even less likely setting for a love story of extraordinary tenderness and innocence, yet this is the remarkable achievement of Anna Hope in The Ballroom.
The novel opens in Spring 1911, with Ella Fay being dragged through the
doors of Sharston Asylum; struggling and disoriented, she has no idea what fate lies in store. Her incarceration is treatment for supposed ‘hysteria’, manifested by her smashing a window in the mill where she has worked since childhood. Sharston is a strangely egalitarian institution where the class divide between ladies and millworkers is non-existent; all are cooped up and bound by the same strict rules until they are considered ‘cured’ and fit for release.
John Mulligan arrived at Sharston years ago and resides in the entirely separate men’s section of the asylum. Having grown used to a life in captivity, John is trusted to work outdoors in the fields or digging graves and, through being allowed outside the asylum walls, he manages to cling to his sense of self. On Friday evening each week, the best-behaved inmates of both sexes are allowed to mingle in the extravagant ballroom, the single point at which the male and female sections of Sharston join. Here, music is played by an orchestra led by the young and impressionable Dr Charles Fuller, who believes that music has a calming and restorative effect on troubled minds. It is in this ballroom that the taut, almost impossible courtship of Ella and John begins.
The summer of 1911 was notoriously long and hot, and Hope exploits this sultry oppression to perfection. The growing emotional tension practically hums with energy as Ella and John negotiate their way around seemingly insurmountable obstacles to find one other. Through the character of Charles Fuller, Hope also deftly investigates the theory of eugenics, which was prominent during the period. Rather than sterilising the ‘weaker’ members of society to prevent procreation, Fuller believes that with support and therapy, individuals can be improved and rehabilitated. His idealism is turned on its head as he confronts truths about his own life – a shift in perception that Hope neatly signals by his move from the tradition of classical music to the flamboyance of ragtime jazz.
The Ballroom is populated by well-written, fully-fleshed characters struggling to break free of the restrictions imposed upon them by society. The harshness of life in an asylum is juxtaposed with tantalizing glimpses of the freedom and beauty of the Yorkshire countryside and, through the central relationship of Ella and John, Hope captures this tension as beautifully, and cruelly, as a butterfly in a glass jar.
A book that will live in your memory for a long time after the last page has been turned.
The Ballroom is published by Transworld Books on February 11. Many thanks to Alison Barrow for sending an ARC.