I am so conflicted by this book. How much is autobiographical? How much is fiction? How much of it has been conjured from the author’s mind? I’m not one to disregard anyone’s experience of mental illness – everyone reacts and feels differently to the things that happen in life, and mental illness is wildly unpredictable and different for everyone – but there’s something about The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls that screams pretentiousness, a vanity project of someone who wants to say ‘look how crazy and yet how intelligent and aware I am’ by constantly degrading others suffering from mental illness and the trained professionals whose job it is to help.
The hospital entries of Emilie were often difficult to get through as they were so self-centred and mostly unpleasant towards other people – I have no doubt that many people have appalling experiences within hospitals, especially with the stigma still attached to mental health, but this just felt like too much. I find it all highly suspect and can only feel incredibly sorry for the author if that was her experience. Something about the narrative left me cold; I couldn’t empathise or connect with Emilie on any level at all, which is probably why I didn’t enjoy reading her entries. The only writing that felt genuine were some of the excerpts included at the end – they talk of mental illness and self-harm and the damaging society we live in, all with realism and passion that was lacking in the previous diary entries. They felt real, so vivid that it almost took my breath away.
It is about one thing. It is about control. And I am filled with twenty-six years of female rage and a deadly determination to take mine back.
Although I didn’t enjoy the modern-day entries of Emilie, I did enjoy the story of Emily – a young Victorian woman who finds herself institutionalised at the hand of an evil man. Her experience I can believe; we all know, or should know, how horrifying life could be, especially for women, during that era, with anyone even slightly different being branded as ‘mad’. There is so much anger at the society that controls, tortures, commodifies women and their bodies, and I was seething with anger and heartache at the experiences of Emily and the other girls and women in the asylum. Her experience at the asylum, the torture she received, her friendships with other inmates, the glorious Sir Edward, all made for a strong story of the cruelties suffered by women in Victorian times.
So, not necessarily a bad book, but one that has left me conflicted and unsure – I don’t believe it is possible to say ‘this is my experience with mental illness and therefore this is the only experience’, but this book feels like that a lot of the time. All I will say is if you are suffering, don’t suffer in silence – there are so many options out there, so many services to access if you are struggling with your mental health. Please, please, please, find the thing that helps you – you are so important.
Read: July 24th-26th 2017