Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Painted Bridge, by Wendy Wallace

When it comes to medical issues, very little scares me these days.  Science has made such strides forward over the last few decades that, to my mind, cancers are (for the most part) beatable, HIV/AIDS is treatable, and a whole host of other, lesser ailments are conquerable.  The only things that terrify me are illnesses of the mind.  We just don’t know enough about the brain to be able to successfully treat illnesses like Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia, and my worst nightmare is to loose my current capacities to such illnesses.  My latest read, The Painted Bridge, by Wendy Wallace reinforced just how precarious our understanding is of the brain and mental health, and it really brought my fears home to me.

The Painted Bridge is set in 1859 (Victorian) London.  We’re introduced to the main character, Anna, when her husband is taking her out to the country to ostensible visit some friends; in reality, he’s taking her out to a privately-run asylum to commit her.  As the story develops, we learn that Anna read about a shipwreck off the cost of Wales, and simply left her home to seek out opportunities to help the survivors.  When she returned, her preacher-husband found her explanation ludicrous and arranged to have her locked away for hysteria.  This brings the reader to the second main piece of this story, and that’s the Lake House, a privately-run ‘retreat’ for women just outside of London; in an era where the government is becoming increasingly involved in the administration of health-services to the population, Querios Abse’s retreat is standing on increasingly shaky ground, both financial and in terms of the methods he uses to treat his patients.  The rest of the story is Anne’s efforts to remain sane in world that believes her to be tottering on (if not already fallen off) the brink of insanity.  

This book brings up several historical issues and beliefs about women that are heart-breaking.  The first issue is that women were subject to the whims of the men in their lives.  Anna went from her parental home to her husband’s without much of a chance to learn about him, or vice versa.  As soon as Anna exhibited a bit of independence (and a lack of due deference to the men in her life), she was labeled as a hysteric and locked away.  The women she met at Lake House further prove the above points – one was locked away by her family for daring to have a relationship with a man from India, another was locked up for years for exhibiting signs of post-partum depression.  Now, I’m not going to judge the past on modern standards (especially given that psychology was a fairly new science in that era), but I read these stories with a feeling that a good dose of common sense could have prevented a lot of these incarcerations.

What I really enjoyed about this book was Wallace’s ability to raise questions about almost all her characters’ sanity.  Anna seems sane, but she admits to having had visions since a young age; Abse seems reasonable, but he’s able to studiously ignore everything around him that doesn’t fit into his world-view; and Abse’s daughter, Catherine, seems like she would be a better fit with her father’s patients that Anna, but as daughter of the house, her behavior is forgiven as ‘quirks’ of character.  It’s a really slippery slope for the reader to manage – what were the true symptoms of Victorian insanity, and where does sanity and character flaws/quirks begin.  

I think what struck me so strongly about this book is that mental health (especially in this era) is/was so much about perception.  Anna found herself in an untenable position of being believed to be insane, but any emotion she exhibited over the question of her sanity was interpreted as a worsening of her hysteria, and made her vulnerable to continued incarceration.  However, while displaying calmness and acceptance, it was interpreted as progress in curing her that required extra time.  She was damned if she did, and damned if she didn’t.

So, final verdict?  I’d say this is a book to read.  The internal push and shove of the struggles of most of the characters are interesting and intriguing, and well worth the effort.  I’ll admit though that this won’t be a book for everyone – there are long passages on reflective thought and information about the Victorian sentiments that slow down the forward movement of the plot.  That having been said, the entire work challenges the reader’s understanding of sanity and insanity and, if you’re like me and fear the loss of your mind, it’s a stark reminder of just how tenuous all our lives are.

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