Review: Wildthorn

Wildthorn by Jane Eagland. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2010. Reviewed from ARC from ALA.

The Plot: Louisa Cosgrove, 17, is supposed to be at the Woodvilles as a companion for their eldest daughter. Not exactly her choice, but in Victorian England she has to do what her older brother and mother say.

The carriage stops and Louisa finds herself at Wildthorn and being called “Lucy Childs.” Her clothes are taken; when she insists she is Louisa, she is told “Don’t get excited. Otherwise we’ll have to calm you down, won’t we?” She is sitting, bewildered, in a huge room being served greasy soup as loud and strange voices surround her when she finally learns what Wildthorn is. “It’s an asylum. For the insane.”

Flashbacks trace Louisa’s journey from a little girl who was more interested in how a doll was made than in playing with one to a young woman who wants to become a doctor like her father. Why is she at Wildthorn? Who put her there? And is there any hope of escape?

The Good:Can you imagine a bigger nightmare than being somewhere you aren’t supposed to be, called by a name not your own? Trapped, with every moment of your life watched and dictated? While Wildthorn is the physical asylum, Louisa’s life outside was sometimes just as rigidly controlled by others. Society, including most of Louisa’s relatives, want her to be a perfect lady, concerned only with social visits, running a household, marrying and having children. Louisa fought that control, and, indulged by her father, studied science and dreamt of attending the London School of Medicine for Women. Louisa has to face the truth; but in facing the truth about why she ended up in Wildthorn she also has to realize the truth about her family members. Who she thought they were, who they really are.

At Eagland’s website about Wildthorn, she explains that she was inspired by a real-life person, Hersilie Rouy, who was incarcerated in asylums for fifteen years despite the fact that she was sane. In reading Wildthorn, I wondered what would be worse: being sane, like Louisa, trapped in an asylum? Or, being truly mentally ill and getting “treated” with hot baths and restraints and at the mercy of uncaring and harsh staff?

Louisa is fortunate. She was strong, mentally, before arriving at Wildthorn and she has a good sense of self. She also befriends a sympathetic attendant, Eliza. Her strength and this friendship keep her going.

Wildthorn is a nuanced work of historical fiction and to fully discuss it, spoilers are necessary. If you don’t like them, stop reading now.

Louisa tries to figure out who committed her and why. As the flashbacks unfold, Louisa reveals that she kissed her cousin, Grace. Did Grace tell someone? Did Grace tell Louisa’s mother? Louisa’s slow realization of her attraction to Grace is realistic and heartbreaking, doomed because we know Louisa ends up at Wildthorn. But is this the reason Louisa is in Wildthorn?

Don’t worry. Wildthorn is not about Louisa being punished for her sexuality. Eagland, to emphasize this, gives Louisa a love that is reciprocated, a love that is sweet and saving and warm: Eliza, the attendant and local farm girl. Louisa’s and Eliza’s relationship is healthy and whole. Is it realistic, one wonders? Is it giving modern readers a modern ending? In looking up information about the London School of Medicine for Women (est. 1874), I saw the name Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. Louisa mentions Anderson when insisting that there is nothing wrong with a woman pursuing medicine. Anderson’s daughter also became a doctor, Dr. Louisa Garrett Anderson. According to Wikipedia, “She never married and is buried at the Holy Trinity Church with her friend and colleague, Dr. Flora Murray near to her home in Penn, Buckinghamshire. The inscription on her grave stone says Louisa Garrett Anderson, C.B.E., M.D., Chief Surgeon Women’s Hospital Corps 1914-1919. Daughter of James George Skelton Anderson and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson of Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Born 28th. July 1873, died November 15. 1943. We have been gloriously happy.”

We have been gloriously happy.” Known Homosexuals – Lesbian History in the Archives notes that “records of lesbian relationships – particularly older historical accounts – are notoriously difficult to track down. Unlike male homosexuality, lesbianism was never criminalised. Invisible in law, it was not officially, and largely not publicly, recognised. Historical accounts are therefore harder to identify than those describing male homosexuality.” It mentions Dr. Louisa Garrett Anderson and Dr. Flora Murray, saying they were not “clearly identified as … lesbian[s],” but points to their being buried together and being “gloriously happy” and having that on their gravestone.  As the article explains, documentation isn’t always available. What would be Louisa’s and Eliza’s situation in “real life”? I think the happiness and acceptance Louisa and Eliza find with each other is realistic.

As you can see, I love digging deeper and finding out the history behind historical fiction. For those interested in Victorian England, asylums, and women: Women and Madnessat HerStoria; Life in a Victorian Lunatic Asylum at History to Her Story; and County Asylums [of England and Wales].


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