Anna Hope’s new novel The Ballroom was inpsired by a family story and an archive picture of High Royds Hospital, Menston. Yvette Huddleston reports.
Sometimes an image is so powerful or evocative that it can trigger a profound response in the viewer. It was such an experience – coupled with an affecting piece of family history – that inspired London-based author Anna Hope to write her latest book, The Ballroom, published this week.
It was while she was researching her highly acclaimed debut novel The Wake, set in the aftermath of the First World War, that Hope discovered some hitherto unknown information about her great-great grandfather John Mullarkey who had come over from the West of Ireland to find work in the Yorkshire mills. Looking through the 1911 census she found her great-great grandmother, who was working in a mill in Bradford, but there was a note explaining that her husband was absent because he was at Menston Asylum (later known as High Royds Psychiatric Hospital, which closed in 2003).
Hope decided to try and find out more when she had the time. “I found this incredible archive about the hospital online. I was flicking through it and in a way it confirmed all my preconceptions and prejudices about Victorian asylums until I saw a picture of the ballroom – it was so beautiful. There is an article from the time describing just how much care and attention to detail had gone in to the creation of the ballroom. I thought I have got to write about this place.”
In an author’s note Hope is at pains to point out that ‘The Ballroom is a novel and is in no way meant to be an accurate representation of life or events at High Royds.’ The hospital in the book is renamed Sharston – and while the three protagonists John, Ella and Charles are fictional characters, John shares some biographical details with Hope’s ancestor. “They both came over from Ireland as single men looking for work and ended up destitute and suffering from melancholia,” says Hope. “But their stories are different. My great-great-grandfather ended up dying in Menston Hospital in his early fifties in 1918. I visited the site while I was researching the book and I found it really moving to think of him there.”
A poignant, beautifully written romance, The Ballroom, set over the hot summer of 1911, tells the story of patients John and Ella who meet at the weekly dance and discover that, despite the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves, there is a possibility of change for the better. “As a writer I am really interested in exploring darkness and dark scenarios,” says Hope. “But there also has to be a thread of hope and a sense of moving towards the light, so the moment I saw that image of the ballroom I knew there was going to be a love story – there had to be. Love stories are most interesting when there are obstacles in the way – and there were for John and Ella, not least the fact that they could only meet once a week.”
Although their love story is at the centre of the novel, it also explores attitudes to mental health – and the poor (High Royds was originally called The West Riding Pauper and Lunatic Asylum) – during the Edwardian era, including touching on the controversial subject of eugenics which put forward the theory that people were genetically disposed to being poor or mentally ill. However, through her extensive research – the book took three years to write – Hope also came across many examples in the casebooks of patients being successfully treated at Menston. “The asylum did seem to function well in many cases,” she says. “I was glad to have my preconceptions challenged by the evidence in the casebooks. It was not a simple picture of a dark and depressing place and I was really grateful to find that. My book takes a dark turn but I hope I have also shown that it was not just a place of darkness – there were many people trying to do their best for the patients.”
The Ballroom is published by Doubleday, £12.99. Anna Hope will be launching her book with the Grove Bookshop at The Clarke Foley Centre, Ilkley on February 22 at 7.30pm and will be at Bradford Waterstones on February 23 at 6pm.