Book Review: Wildthorn, by Jane Eagland

I have been reading rather a lot of young adult fiction lately and there are a number of books I’d like to write about, but this one in particular seems worthy of discussing here because one of the central themes of the story is institutionalisation. Please be advised that I’ll be getting into plot details in this post; I didn’t find any of the revelations I’ll be discussing particularly shocking because they were fairly transparent to me, but if you prefer to approach books unspoiled and let them unfold naturally for you (as I do!) then you should not read further!

To give you some time to navigate away, here’s the publisher’s writeup on Wildthorn:

They strip her naked, of everything—undo her whalebone corset, hook by hook. Locked away in Wildthorn Hall—a madhouse—they take her identity. She is now called Lucy Childs. She has no one; she has nothing. But, she is still seventeen—still Louisa Cosgrove, isn’t she? Who has done this unthinkable deed? Louisa must free herself, in more ways than one, and muster up the courage to be her true self, all the while solving her own twisted mystery and falling into an unconventional love . . .  Originally published in the UK, this well-paced, provocative romance pushes on boundaries—both literal and figurative—and, do beware: it will bind you, too.

This book is set in the 19th century, an era when organised ‘asylums’ became quite popular as places for locking people away; in addition to providing a dumping ground for people with mental illness, an ancient practice, they also offered ‘treatment’ to their inmates. Many of these institutions had horrific and appalling conditions and their inmates were just as likely to be unwanted single women of the family or rebellious women who didn’t obey as they were to have genuine mental illnesses. Institutionalisation is a very old plot device and I’ve been encountering it a lot lately; it came up in The Summoning, a book abby jean and I reviewed recently, and Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith featured a storyline very similar to that of Wildthorne (here’s my review of Fingersmith if you’re interested, be aware it has spoilers).

In Wildthorn, the main character is introduced to us in an institutional setting. People are calling her by the wrong name and she insists that she doesn’t belong and there has been some frightful  mistake. As she attempts to figure out what has happened, she is moved progressively from the ward for ‘good’ patients to solitary and then to an open ward for the ‘worst’ cases, giving readers a glimpse of conditions in 19th century mental health facilities. She is subjected to brutality in the name of treatment, and is repeatedly ignored and silenced by the medical professionals around her.

As the story winds out, we learn that she was placed in the institution due to a complicated series of family machinations; the short version would be that her aunt sold her out, signing the paperwork to commit her on the orders of her daughter’s fiance, who didn’t want an independent young woman ‘bringing shame on the family.’ Along the way, we also learn that Louisa is lesbian; as she untangles the web of events that led her here, she also finds love, of a form very much forbidden in her era.

The book is an ok read (really, if you’re going to pick one book with this basic storyline, I’d recommend Fingersmith for its deliciously lyrical language), but it sparked some thoughts in me about institutionalisation stories and how they’re used. I feel like a lot of authors feel comfortable putting characters in institutions in earlier historical eras, and I get a whiff of ‘sheesh, at least things aren’t like this any more!’ when, in fact, there’s ample documentation of abuse going on in institutions right now as well as a movement pushing for deinstitutionalisation. It’s also notable to me that in most of these storylines, the institutionalised character is designed to be sympathetic and is humanised by nature of not being mentally ill. Anna pointed out this trend in pop culture last week, talking about television, and it shows up in books too. I’m sure there are books out there featuring actually mentally ill characters in institutions, but the thrust of the story in books like this isn’t that institutionalisation itself is necessarily wrong, but that it’s wrong because someone who didn’t ‘belong’ has been swept up.

Readers of books in this genre who aren’t very familiar with the history of institutionalisation and disability rights would probably come away with the takeaway that institutions used to be really bad, so it’s good that they’ve been reformed; both so that bad things don’t happen to inmates, and so that people can’t be locked up when they aren’t mentally ill. I’d really like to read a book featuring instutitonalisation in a modern setting with an actually mentally ill character (that isn’t a memoir, like Girl, Interrupted) to see how people deal with the theme when they can’t hide behind ‘well, the character doesn’t belong because she doesn’t have a mental illness!’ It would be interesting to see institutionalisation challenged directly by an author willing to ask why people are imprisoned in mental health facilities, period, rather than having it just used as a plot device, a spectre of terror, every ‘normal’ person’s worst nightmare.