I have read several novels that tackle the subject of Victorian women locked away in asylums, sometimes due to depression, anxiety or ‘hysteria’, but often simply because they were an inconvenience to their husbands or families. The Asylum by John Harwood, The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood and The Girl Who Couldn’t Read by John Harding are a few examples and I was keen to see how Noel O’Reilly would approach the same topic in his new novel, The Darlings of the Asylum.
The story begins in Brighton in 1886 with a marriage being arranged between our narrator Violet Pring and the wealthy Felix Skipp-Borlase. Violet is fond of Felix but she knows she doesn’t love him and doesn’t want to marry him – what she really wants is to be free to pursue a career as an artist and she’s not ready to give up on her dream. The more her mother tries to push her into the marriage, the more Violet tries to resist until things finally reach a climax and a tragedy occurs. The next day, with no memory of what happened, Violet wakes up to find herself incarcerated in Hillwood Grange Lunatic Asylum.
Getting to know the other inhabitants of Hillwood Grange, Violet finds that many of them do have genuine mental health issues – although nothing to warrant the kind of treatment they are receiving in the asylum – but she has no idea why she has been sent here herself. She knows she must have done something terrible, but nobody will tell her what it was and she can barely remember her last night of freedom at all. Allowed only limited contact with family and friends and banned from drawing and painting, Violet is miserable and frightened – particularly when she discovers that the sinister Dr Rastrick may have his own reasons for wanting her in the asylum. Violet must find a way to prove that she is sane and escape from Hillwood Grange, but how can she do that when everyone around her seems to be part of a conspiracy to keep her imprisoned forever?
The Darlings of the Asylum is a fascinating novel, although quite similar to the books I’ve mentioned and others with a Victorian asylum/mental hospital element. Still, whether or not you’ve read much on this topic before, the portrayal of Violet’s plight is disturbing and at times horrifying, as she desperately tries to make herself heard and free herself from the clever and manipulative Dr Rastrick. Violet also makes an effort to befriend some of the other women in Hillwood Grange who are even less fortunate than herself and have been dismissed as insane or used as subjects for experiments rather than receiving the sort of care we would expect them to be given today.
Noel O’Reilly has written the book from Violet’s perspective and although sometimes I find that male authors don’t write in a convincing female ‘voice’ and vice versa, I thought he did a good job here. I could believe in Violet as a Victorian woman, albeit a slightly unconventional one. I was also happy with the way her story ended. It wasn’t quite what I’d expected, but better than some of the alternatives would have been! Now I’ll have to read Noel O’Reilly’s first novel, Wrecker, about shipwrecks on the Cornish coast.
Thanks to HQ for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
Book #63 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.