Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, by Anne Goodwin, explores changing attitudes to sexual activity and pregnancy across the decades of the twentieth century. The main threads of the story are set in the late 1980s and early 90s. The titular protagonist, a septuagenarian, is being assessed for her suitability to benefit from the new Care in the Community policy – an attempt to deinstitutionalise those who have spent years locked away for supposed health reasons. If selected, Matty would be required to leave the psychiatric hospital where she has lived for the past fifty years. Having been incarcerated for so long she struggles now to recognise or acknowledge reality. Matty believes the asylum is her mother’s stately home, the inmates her guests and the staff her servants. She believes it important to treat all these people well whilst retaining a certain decorum and distance.
Another thread follows Janice, a newly qualified social worker who applied for a job at the institution to be near her boyfriend. The couple separate before she starts working there. Janice takes a particular interest in Matty having discovered she was placed in the asylum with a diagnosis of ‘Moral Turpitude’ – likely because she was pregnant, although her notes contain scant details.
“That can’t have been uncommon. If every unmarried woman who fell pregnant was diagnosed with moral-whatever the wards would be chock-a-block.”
“Most would’ve been packed off to the country,” said Sister Henderson. “Once the child’s adopted, they’d slot back in at home.”
One woman’s loss another’s gain. “And Matty Osbourne?”
“Maybe her father smelt a whiff of scandal. Mebbe she’d been a bother and he wanted shot of her.”
Notice the change of Matty’s surname there – it has an interesting explanation that effects plot development.
The third main thread follows Henry Windsor, a bachelor in his late fifties who has worked all his life at the local council. He lives alone in the house he was born in, that he keeps furnished as it was in his late father’s day. Henry refuses to leave the place overnight, even to go on holiday, as he expects his beloved sister, Tilly, to return to him. She left without explanation when he was six years old having raised him from when he was a baby. She promised she would be back and Henry has spent decades trying to track her down, to no avail. Henry is having an affair with Irene, a married younger woman and mother of twins. Henry harbours a hope that Irene will leave her family for him.
As the backstories to Matty, Janice and Henry are revealed, plans for their futures hit setbacks. In amongst the unfolding events are pregnancies that end in a variety of ways. A morning after pill takes care of one unexpected, drunken coupling. An abortion frees a woman from an unwanted child. A miscarriage is mourned, the suffering mother subjected to careless commentary. Adoptees, raised by loving parents, consider searching for those who gave them away. A social worker recounts a distressing visit to a young, single mother who is struggling to adequately care for her baby. In amongst all this is the spectre of AIDS. There are still varying degrees of societal stigma attached to all these events.
Matty is a wonderfully complex if pitiful creation. Henry is less admirable, especially as regards Irene. It is interesting to consider how mental capacity is assessed and the role family prejudice can play. Janice, although well meaning, comes across as naive. The cast of characters that surround each of these key players offer ample opportunity to explore attitudes and obligation, particularly within neighbourhoods and families.
Short chapters move the story along although the pace was, at times, frustrating. The reader is offered a window into encounters that the characters rarely pick up themselves. Henry, having spent so long trying to trace Tilly, appears not to follow through when he is finally granted a potential lead. He has strange turns at key moments – perhaps a hint at his own mental incapacities. The staff at the asylum may talk to the residents regularly but seem unaware that some of them knew each other before they were sectioned. Patients’ ramblings are regarded as delusional rather than a lens to their history.
The author grew up in Cumbria where the tale is set. We are told that ‘her first post on qualifying as a clinical psychologist was in a longstay psychiatric hospital in the process of closing.’ I am therefore happy to defer to her expertise on mental health matters. This makes it even more upsetting when the patients’ stuttered attempts to communicate appear to be ignored or dismissed.
I particularly enjoyed the chapters set in the 1930s in which we learn of Matilda’s childhood and how she came to care for the young Henry.
Be aware that, in amongst the humour and pathos, are disturbing incidences of sexual abuse – historical and contemporary.
The author presents a thought-provoking yet always entertaining story, written with knowledge and verve. Once the pacing picked up and enough reveals had been shared, this was a book I did not want to put down until the satisfying denouement.
A good read that covers difficult issues through accessible characters whose flaws add to their depth. No easy answers are offered and this seems appropriate when exploring issues surrounding mental health.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.