The Ballroom is gilded cage where the male and female patients of an asylum on the Yorkshire moors come together one night a week to dance. Birds flit across the cathedral glass enhancing the illusion of freedom. But the patients are not free, for rules are invented, graded and enforced around every word, every gesture, every act of rebellion or hope.
Hope’s novel is highly topical as it delves into the mindset of those who misuse power to create a divide between the poor and the upper classes, in order to prove the position they are taking on an issue is a necessary one. It’s 1911 and Dr Charles Fuller has been with the asylum for five years and has recently been promoted. Keen to see his star rise Fuller expresses interest in the soon to be proposed Feeble Minded Bill and dreams of presenting a paper at the first Eugenics Conference.
For the poor, every day is fight for survival, whether they are doing back breaking work in the mills, on the land or in the ‘progressive’ asylum. Ella ends up being forcibly placed in the asylum after committing a minor offence due to feeling trapped by her circumstances in a mill. When she makes a run for it she encounters a male inmate called John, who finds himself admiring her desperate flight. Both choose to abide by the asylum rules despite the challenging circumstances, as ‘being good was surviving’. Eventually John and Ella find each other once more when they are given passes to the Ballroom, where they begin to dance.
Thinking himself intellectually superior to his patients, Fuller sees them as interesting objects of study, as somehow less than human, until he finds himself being emotionally drawn to one. Fuller has suffered rejection many times in his life, as have John and Ella. A weak man he takes his frustration out on those who cannot challenge him, becoming more detached, mechanical and ruthless as the novel progresses. Left to his own devices the sense of inadequacy at the heart of Fuller’s nature grows like bindweed threatening to stifle and destroy the lives of those who are in his care. Charles is trapped within the prison of his own mind, unable to comprehend the reality of other human experiences.
Hope goes on to explore the idea of nature versus nurture through contrasting the experiences of Dr. Fuller with those of Ella and John, specifically questioning who and what truly adds value to life and the progression of humanity. The Ballroom is a haunting, thought-provoking novel inspired by historic uncomfortable truths, that’s written with great care and understanding. A timely novel that I highly recommended.
Published by Doubleday
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With thanks to @alisonbarrow for the review copy.