Book Review: The Ballroom


The Ballroom, by Anna Hope, is a love story set in what would have been considered a progressive mental asylum a century ago. It is a damning indictment of the innate sense of superiority still evident amongst wealthy, white skinned men, and the danger this poses to all of society. The way these men think and the power they hold over those less fortunate than themselves in terms of governance makes for familiar and chilling reading.

The story opens with the admittance to Sharston Asylum, a six hundred acre facility for the mentally deranged on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors, of a young mill worker named Ella Fay. Ella has been sectioned for causing a disturbance at her place of work, for breaking a window and then attempting to run away. Her life has been hard, not just at the mill but before that at home where her father regularly beat her mother, now dead.

Ella is assessed by the apparently affable Dr Fuller. Fuller has hopes of using music and dancing to improve his patients’ outcomes. As a member of the Eugenics Society he agrees with many of his peers that the poor are lesser beings than the wealthy. He reveres a lecturer he had at medical school named Pearson.

“During his lectures, Pearson spoke of many things, but alongside the danger of the inferior man he spoke of the superior man and of the need for these superior men to populate the world”

Many of the inmates at the asylum were admitted due to their pauperism, which Fuller believes is a fault of their genes and something that could be eradicated if they were prevented from breeding.

“pauperism is to a large extent confined to a special and degenerate class. A defective and dependent class known as the pauper class. Lack of initiative, lack of control, and the entire absence of a right perception is a far more important cause of pauperism than any of the alleged economic causes.”

At Sharston Asylum a strict policy of separation ensures that no breeding can take place. The only time any of the two thousand men and women can meet is at a weekly dance in the ornate Ballroom at the centre of the massive building. Attendance is strictly monitered and is regarded as a reward for good behaviour. Ella is determined that she will be good in the hope of one day being released.

Over on the men’s side is an Irish melancholic, John Mulligan. He and his friend, Dan Riley, are assigned jobs in the grounds where they dig graves and tend the fields. When Dr Fuller requires a subject to study for a lecture he plans to give arguing for self sufficient colonies, work camps to house the increasing number of degenerates threatening to swamp society, he picks on John. He intends to scientifically demonstrate that the regime at Sherston is a model which could benefit the inmates, the surrounding community, and society as a whole.

Ella befriends Clem, a well educated young woman from a wealthy family who pay for her incarceration in an attempt to persuade her to conform. Fuller concurs with the widely held opinion that men and women are inherently different, that men are naturally inclined to progressive thought whereas women are born to nurture. When Clem refused the suitor chosen by her father and brother, desiring instead to attend university, they considered her behaviour hysterical and requiring treatment.

Ella and John meet at the weekly dances. They exchange letters, which Clem reads and writes due to Ella’s illiteracy. The drudgery of their days is lightened by the feelings kindled. It is exactly the sort of behaviour that Dr Fuller is determined must be stamped out if the expense to the state of pauperism is to be eradicated.

The writing evokes the hard life of the inmates: the heat, smell, discomfort and boredom that must be tolerated alongside the knowledge that all power of self determination has been removed. If they were not mad to begin with it takes great effort to prevent madness developing in these circumstances. The inhumanity of the staff is painful to read. Above all of this sit the doctors meting out what they see as benevolence. They have no idea how their patients think and feel because they cannot perceive of them as equals.

A powerful, satisfying read that is a chilling reminder of the need to rebel against the lies peddled by government of the inferiority of certain classes of people. Our Eton educated overlords are still being raised to consider themselves superior types of being, and to persuade those beneath them of the need to eradicate the poor by whatever means.

This is also a love story of the first order. I was rooting for Ella and John throughout, despairing over Clem’s circumstances. Beautifully written, emotive, and all too relevant today.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

One comment on “Book Review: The Ballroom

  1. sharkell says:

    Your review brings to mind Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks which examines the treatment of mentally ill in the late 19th century – horrific treatment within horrific asylums. And we still don’t seem to be treating mentally ill people effectively and humanely.

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