Book review – The Ballroom by Anna Hope

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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?

The Ballroom

“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.

Writing style

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.

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Picture: Mark Davis / Guzelian
The ballroom at West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum at High Royds Hospital, Menston, West Yorkshire

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.

(This post contains an affiliate link, which means I receive a small commission at no cost to you if you make a book purchase using this link).

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Ms Via
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This book sounds interesting Lisa. I will add it to my list for later read. Loved your review 🙂

Jenny in Neverland
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This sounds like an interesting novel, Lisa! I love the cover as well. I think anything set in an asylum type environment is very interesting. I’d also love to join a book club one day! xxx

Chloe
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Hi Lisa, this book sounds really interesting it is not the usual book that I would grab but I think I may after your review.

Emma Langlands
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Sounds like such a good book, such a great review! xox

Sophie
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It sounds like a great story. I love that it’s told from all different perspectives. The narrative always feels more dynamic and engaging when it’s structured like that. Great suggestion for book club! x

Sophie
http://www.glowsteady.co.uk

Caroline
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I love reading novels, well any book now! I always been cranky about eveything, now I’d love to read a drama or horror! I’ll definitely put this book on my shelf, but for now on my wishlist. Being in a book club would be my dream x

Bexa
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I love the idea of being part of a book club Lisa! This story sounds really intriguing, a history lesson and a romantic tale all in one. It’s great when you read a book and actually learn a lot too. Thank you for sharing your review, your posts are always so well written and interesting! <3

Bexa | http://www.hellobexa.com

Caroline
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Caroline

Great review, it sounds really good x

Melanie
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This sounds like a really interesting book and your review of it is fantastically through. I love discovering new books that I may not have chosen myself and this is one that wouldn’t automatically pick. I’m going to bookmark this for when I’m on the lookout for a new book.

Melanie | http://www.frasersfunhouse.com

Lauren
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Such an in-depth review. It’s beautifully written. I definitely need to read more this year. So far I have only read one book this year so far. Just can never find time ??. I love your blog and posts!