In the early chapters, Goldcord’s surgeon, Enoch Gale, is introduced, along with his loyal matron, Eugenie Harvey; and two newcomers, Ambrose Ballard and nurse Tilly Swann.
Both Ambrose and Tilly are surprised to find the respected hospital in a rather wan, wilted state. Gale is widely reputed for his progressive approach, and had been a hero to Ballard in his student days.
The patients – both men and women, treated separately – include a middle-aged woman seeking a divorce; an alcoholic gentleman with psychotic tendencies; two young women suffering from eating disorders, who develop a symbiotic kinship; another female patient, diagnosed with ‘hysterical epilepsy’; and a convicted murderess.
While certainly troubled, most of them would not be considered ‘insane’ today, or a danger to others. Most enigmatic of all is Ivy Squire, a taciturn young woman kept in isolation. She shows little interest in her appearance, or making friends. Her only interest, it would seem, are a small collection of pebbles which she is constantly arranging.
When Tilly gains her interest, Ivy begins to tell her story. It then becomes clear that Ivy is the novel’s lynchpin. As a modern reader, it’s hard not to wonder if she wouldn’t now be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. But that condition didn’t yet exist in the medical lexicon.
Goldcord Asylum is skilfully constructed, and Jude Starling succeeds in breaking down the doors to a hidden world of lunacy and confinement.As the novel progresses, the asylum’s future – and with it, Gale’s – looks uncertain. The government inspectors who visit regularly are unhappy with the low discharge rate, and a large number of patients are at risk of being written off as incurable.
Battling his own demons, Gale’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, and so he finally resorts to desperate measures. Goldcord Asylum depicts an era of turmoil, when mental illness was primarily a moral issue, and progressive therapies were being abandoned in favour of a more rigid philosophy.
Of course, this conflict reflects changing social values in the wider Victorian society, of which Goldcord Asyum is itself a product. Tilly has rejected her upwardly-mobile upbringing to follow her vocation.
Ivy, who comes from a family of train manufacturers, tries to rebel but is even more constricted. Her naivety – about everything from menstruation to child-bearing – is markedly greater than that of her housemaid, Ann-Marie, who becomes a close ally.
Shy, awkward, and far too clever for her own good, Ivy confounds her peers’ expectations of how a young lady should behave. And her prosperous background cannot save her from the harsh reality of a loveless marriage.
However, Ivy’s intelligence and wit light up the pages, and she reflects an often concealed aspect of Victorian femininity. Starling writes about both love and sex with a distinct frankness, and if Ivy, in some ways, fits that 19th century trope of the ‘fallen woman’, as well as the tragic Ophelia so beloved of Pre-Raphaelite art, she also exudes defiant sensuality.
The healing powers of sisterhood and friendship are also present in the warm rapport between Ivy and Tilly, which provides some respite from the terrible trajectory of Enoch Gale, and those vulnerable souls placed in his care.
Starling’s novel is skilfully constructed, and she succeeds in breaking down the doors to its hidden world of lunacy and confinement for today’s readers.
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