My Book Group’s book choice for this month is also one of mine. It’s The Ballroom by Anna Hope, published in 2016. I first read this novel some time ago, absolutely adored it, and had no hesitation in suggesting for our Group. So why did I love it so much?
“High walls and barred windows separate them. But once a week they are free to dance.”
The novel is set in a fictional asylum, Sharston, in Yorkshire just before the First World War and has three main characters. Ella, a mill girl sent to Sharston for a minor incident, who can only think about escaping. John, incarcerated ever since his breakdown following the death of his child and failed marriage. And Charles, the new doctor and bandmaster, who failed his exams and yearns to escape his domineering father.
The story is told from all three viewpoints: Ella, John, and Charles, and the narrative switches between the three very easily with no loss of pace or thread.
The male and female inmates at Sharston are separated with the men working outside in the fields and the women inside doing the laundry. But once a week there is a dance in the magnificent ballroom where selected inmates can attend and socialise. It is at one of these dances that John and Ella’s relationship begins to blossom. And, after presiding over the dances, Charles decides to submit a paper to the 1912 Eugenics Congress about the benefits of music on the feeble-minded.
Characters and storyline
Alongside the three main characters are Clem, Ella’s friend, and Dan, John’s friend. Clem and Dan aren’t just bit parts, they play important roles in the growing relationship between John and Ella. They are also both integral to Charles’ deterioration, descent into madness, and volte-face. There were some extremely disturbing and upsetting scenes in parts, and I don’t want to give too much away but I was gripped by the way the story progressed and all the characters developed.
I loved the writing and one of my favourite pieces is the description of John’s desire when he sees Ella outside on Coronation Day:
“His heart clenched … desire welled within him, a wave powering him forward, and he almost moved, before it broke in his chest and raked back across his belly, and he stayed where he was, shuddering in its wake.”
I don’t think I’ve ever read a better description of the physical effect of desire on the body. Without wanting to sound weird, I could actually feel the echo in my own body as I read this.
Why I’d recommend it
The Ballroom was inspired by the true story of Anna Hope’s great-great-grandfather who emigrated from Ireland and was incarcerated in Menston. The author has clearly done her research and admits she was shocked to discover the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill’s enthusiasm for forced sterilization for the feeble-minded. I didn’t know this either and I was horrified by how much strong support there was in the British establishment for eugenics at that time. It’s worth remembering that this was all well before the Second World War, Joseph Mengele and the Nazis.
So many people who had fallen on hard times or made a mistake were locked up with others who really did need mental help. For example, any woman giving birth while in receipt of poor relief was deemed feeble-minded and liable for compulsory institutionalisation.
I hope I’ve given you an indication of why I loved The Ballroom so much and why I recommend it so highly. The novel is not just a tender and moving love story, it’s also a lesson from history, and a damning indictment on how mental health was regarded only 100 years ago. It’s a book that has stayed with me long after I read it for the first time. That impression hasn’t changed on a recent re-reading so, if you do decide to pick it up, I hope you (and my Book Group!) will feel the same way too.
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