Seeking asylum in Menston

The Ballroom by Anna Hope. Doubleday, £12.99 (ebook £7.99)

Anna Hopes ancestor John Mullarkey spent time at Menston Ayslum.
Anna Hopes ancestor John Mullarkey spent time at Menston Ayslum.

An asylum on the Yorkshire moors in the first decades of the 20th century is the setting for Anna Hope’s magnificent second novel, The Ballroom, the follow-up to her impressive debut of last year, Wake.

The seeds of her latest work were sown when Hope was researching her first book, which was set in the years after the First World War. Hope knew that great great-grandfather John Mullarkey had come to England from the West of Ireland in search of work. She also knew he’d found employment in the mills of Yorkshire along with his wife.

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What Hope didn’t know was that Mullarkey had also spent time at Menston Asylum, which later became known as High Royds Psychiatric Hospital. In the early 20th century, the treatment of the mentally-ill was often brutal, with therapies designed to silence rather than cure.

While much of what Hope read confirmed every prejudice about Victorian asylums, she also stumbled across a photograph of a ballroom at Menston. It was a stark image of normality and while her novel is just that – a piece of fiction – it is imbued with historical detail.

Set in 1911 – just a few years before Mularkey died there – segregation, discipline and restraint are the order of the day for residents at Sharston Asylum. In the women’s building, newcomer Ella has to adjust to the strict confinement of daily life as she dreams of escape. But there are only three ways out: sanity, escape or death. Across the way, the men fare only slightly better, allowed outside to dig graves or work the land. But for John, it’s a respite from his past.

Only on Fridays do the two halves meet for a dance in the institution’s ballroom, led by second assistant medical officer and chief bandsman, Dr Charles Fuller. A student of eugenics, he disapproves of the move towards sterilisation of the working classes and infirm, instead seeing music as a way of betterment, and he hopes to prove his theory with one of his patients: John Mulligan.

Anna Hope has proven once again that she is a luminary in historical fiction. Writing history from the margins, the personal stories behind the era, she delivers profound, poignant narratives that stir the emotions. Taut from the outset, Hope’s narrative conjures the desperation and tension within the asylum as well as drawing three complicated and nuanced characters and weaving them together in a compelling and masterful way.

A poignant and beautifully written romance, despite the setting there is a threat of hope which runs through the narrative which prevents it being a tale of a dark, depressing place best consigned to history.

The love story is simply magnificent, but it is the backdrop to it all that is so fascinating. Hope explores the attitudes to mental health and the poor – the two were inextricably linked – and touches on the controversial subject of eugenics.

If you thought Anna Hope’s debut was good, this one is even better. And if you haven’t read either, you’re seriously missing out.

Anna Hope will be at The Clarke Foley Centre, Ilkley on February 22 at 7.30pm to talk about her latest book and Bradford Waterstones the following evening at 6pm.