The Ballroom | Anna Hope | 2016 | Doubleday | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1911 and high on the Yorkshire Moors sits Sharston Asylum, a home for the insane. It is an immense institution, with long corridors, huge rooms and multiple kitchens and dormitories, ready to house and treat many hundreds of male and female patients. But its architect must have had some kind of vision of what life could be like inside these otherwise cheerless walls – an enormous ballroom, one hundred feet in length, adorned with stained glass, a ceiling panelled with gold.
Charles Fuller believes he has found the perfect job when he wins the post of medical assistant at the asylum, a role that is supposed to combine conventional treatment of the patients with the more unusual therapy of music. Every day, Charles plays for the patients, fitting ailments to their ideal restorative composer. Charles is a follower of eugenics. He believes that mankind can be improved genetically, but not necessarily through the sterilisation of the insane, but through the transformation of their minds by such an influence as music.
Ella is newly brought to the asylum, ‘sectioned’ for smashing a window in the mill where she has laboured for years. She just wanted some light, some air. But this rash act changes her life and now she must deal with the terrible consequences. When being assessed by Charles Fuller, she manages to flee, running for her life across the moor until she is inevitably caught at the feet of a working party from the asylum. John is among the group, digging graves for the anonymous and numerous dead. He has been a patient for years, made ill and misunderstood by grief. In that moment, something passes between Ella and John. From then on, each longs for those weekly evenings when for a brief time male and female patients are brought together within the ballroom and allowed to dance.
The Ballroom is a gently sad and melancholic novel, set in one of the grimmest of settings that nevertheless achieves an other worldliness, thanks to the extraordinary and unexpected ballroom as well as the author’s exquisite prose. The novel moves between three lives – Ella, John and Charles, probing beneath the ‘madness’ that has reduced Ella and John to this while highlighting that it’s not just the patients who could be accused of insanity. Charles is repressed, desperate to prove that he is among the superior of his race, while clearly fooling himself. His intentions are not all as they seem but, still, it’s hard to blame him entirely. The story of John in particular is heartbreaking and his pain looms over the novel. Ella’s frustration exists hand in hand with the novel’s depiction of the severity of life for the poor on these Yorkshire moors. For some, the asylum might be an escape, but what a terrible one.
Anna Hope presents a fascinating depiction of early 20th-century life for the poor, the ill, the oppressed and the unfortunate, while also scrutinising the hypocrisy of their ‘betters’. The world of the asylum itself is powerfully evoked, in detail and in atmosphere. The love affair between Ella and John is delicately and gently drawn, contrasting with the turmoil that exists in Charles’s mind. While The Ballroom did prove a little too bleak for me and didn’t immerse me to quite the same degree as its outstanding predecessor Wake, I can still appreciate the beauty of Anna Hope’s prose and the quality of her storytelling and strong sense of history. I look forward to seeing where Anna takes us next.