A searing novel of forbidden love on the Yorkshire moors—“a British version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (The Times U.K.)—from the author of the critically acclaimed debut Wake
England, 1911. At Sharston Asylum, men and women are separated by thick walls and barred windows. But on Friday nights, they are allowed to mingle in the asylum’s magnificent ballroom. From its balconies and vaulted ceilings to its stained glass, the ballroom is a sanctuary. Onstage, the orchestra plays Strauss and Debussy while the patients twirl across the gleaming dance floor.
Amid this heady ambience, John Mulligan and Ella Fay first meet. John is a sure-footed dancer with a clouded, secretive face; Ella is as skittish as a colt, with her knobby knees and flushed cheeks. Despite their grim circumstances, the unlikely pair strikes up a tenuous courtship. During the week, he writes letters smuggled to her in secret, unaware that Ella cannot read. She enlists a friend to read them aloud and gains resolve from the force of John’s words, each sentence a stirring incantation. And, of course, there’s always the promise of the ballroom.
Then one of them receives an unexpected opportunity to leave Sharston for good. As Anna Hope’s powerful, bittersweet novel unfolds, John and Ella face an agonizing dilemma: whether to cling to familiar comforts or to confront a new world—living apart, yet forever changed.
Praise for The Ballroom
“The Ballroom successfully blends historical research with emotional intelligence to explore the tensions and trials of the human condition with grace and insight.”—New York Times Book Review
“Part historical novel and part romance, The Ballroom paints an incredibly rich portrait of the mentally stable forced to live in an asylum. [Anna] Hope transports readers inside the asylum, to feel the thick humidity of the stale summer air of the day room, and the gritty and brutal reality inside those walls.”—Booklist
“A compelling cast of emotionally resonant characters, as well as a bittersweet climax, render Hope’s second novel a powerful, memorable experience.”—Publishers Weekly
“Hope’s writing is consistently beautiful. . . . Recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction by Sarah Waters or Emma Donoghue.”—Library Journal
“A beautifully wrought novel, a tender, heartbreaking and insightful exploration of the longings that survive in the most inhospitable environments.”—Sunday Express
“The Ballroom has all the intensity and lyricism of [Anna] Hope’s debut, Wake. At its heart is a tender and absorbing love story.”—Daily Mail
“Compelling and masterful . . . Anna Hope has proven once again that she is a luminary in historical fiction. . . . She delivers profound, poignant narratives that stir the emotions.”—Yorkshire Post
“As with Hope’s highly acclaimed debut novel, Wake, the writing is elegant and insightful; she writes beautifully about human emotion, landscape and weather.”—The Observer
“A brilliantly moving meditation on what it means to be ‘insane’ in a cruel world . . . All the characters are vividly and sensitively drawn. . . . Deeply moving.”—The Irish Times
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
“Are you going to behave?” The man’s voice echoed. “Are you going to behave?”
She made a noise. Could have been yes. Could have been no, but the blanket was pulled off her head and she gasped for air.
An arched hall stretched before her, lit with lamps. The thin hiss of gas. Plants everywhere, and the smell of carbolic soap. On the floor were tiles, reaching out in all directions, polished till they shone, some in the shapes of flowers, but the flowers were black. She knew then that this was no police station, and started shouting in fear, until a young woman in uniform appeared from the darkness and slapped her on the cheek.
“There’ll be none of that in here.”
Irish. Ella whipped her head back, tears in her eyes though she wasn’t crying. She knew those Irish girls. There were plenty at the mill. They were mean as hell.
Another woman came, and they put their hands beneath her armpits and began pulling her toward two doors. Ella dragged her feet, but they slapped her till she walked for herself. Both of them had sets of keys at the waist. There must have been twenty, thirty keys there, clanging away. They pushed her through the doors, locked them behind her, and then they were standing at the top of a corridor so long the end was impossible to see.
“Where am I?”
No reply. Only the wheeze of the gas and the corridor, stretching. They turned to the left with her, through another set of doors, marching her between them, uniforms crackling as they walked. Everywhere the same hard smell of soap, and something else, something wrong underneath.
Then a last door, and a large room, with a stink like a pigpen, where they dragged her to a narrow, metal-framed bed and shoved her down. “We’ll deal with you later.”
Other beds showed themselves in the grayish light, hundreds of them lying end to end. On each a person, but man or woman she couldn’t tell. Heavy furniture lined the walls, which were painted dark. She could see the large double doors she had come in from. Locked.
Was this prison, then? Already?
She crouched at the top of the bed, breathing hard. Her cheek was throbbing. She lifted her fingers to it; it had split where the men had punched her earlier, and was pulpy and thick. She pulled the rough blanket up over her knees. Someone nearby was singing, the sort of song you’d sing to hush a baby to sleep. Someone else crying. Someone muttering to himself.
A humming started up. It seemed to be coming from the next bed, but all Ella could see of the woman in there was her feet, soles like peeling yellow paper, until she sat up straight like a jack-in-the-box. She was old, but wore her hair in bunches like a little girl. Thin, tallacky flesh hung slack on her arms.
“Will you come with me?” the woman said.
Ella inched a little toward her. Perhaps she knew a way out. “Where to?”
“Germany.” The woman’s eyes were wet and gleaming. “We’ll dance there, we’ll sing.” And she started up a wordless tune in a cracked childhood voice. Then, “At night,” the woman said, in a loud whisper, “when I’m sleeping, me soul comes out—creep creep creep like a little white creature.” She pointed at Ella and smiled. “But you must let it be. It comes back in the morning, right enough.”
Ella brought her fists over her eyes, curling away from the woman into a small, tight ball. Someone was banging on the walls:
She would have joined in. Except she didn’t know where that was.
She stayed awake through the night, but couldn’t have slept if she’d wanted to. Her cheek flamed, and as soon as one of the women stopped bleating another one started up, bawling, singing, chelping to themselves:
“Reek! Reek! Didmeagreatfrightand…”
“But that’s it, where the spiritscomeintome…”
As the sky started to lighten, the chorus got louder, and Old Germany in the bed beside her was the loudest of the lot, a terrible songbird greeting the dawn. A bell clanged at the top of the room. But there was movement at least, something happening, Ella could see a woman at the far end, dressed in uniform like those who had brought her here last night, and she slipped out of her bed, walking fast down the middle of the room. “I’ve to speak to someone.”
“What’s that?” The woman was plump, her face thick with sleep.
“Someone in charge.”
“I’m in charge.” The woman smoothed her uniform out over her belly. She lifted her watch, began to wind it up.
“Where am I?”
“You don’t know?” The woman smiled at the round face of her watch as though the two of them were sharing a nice little joke. Another bell rang, louder, somewhere outside the room. The women began to swarm and press themselves into lines. Ella put her thumbs in her palms. For a moment she was back at work—seven in the morning and everyone rushing up the hill so as not to be late, not to have their pay docked—the metal-tasting panic in the mouth. Jim Christy, the penny hoil man, standing at the gate, waiting to shut it in your face on the stroke of seven.
“You should wait till you’ve eaten something.”
She turned to see a tall pale girl at her elbow.
“Never fight on an empty stomach.” The girl had a quick, easy smile. “Come on.” She touched her on the arm. “I can show you the way.”
Ella shook her off. She didn’t need friends. Especially not in here.
She followed the crowd into a large, echoing room, where the women were taking seats on benches set before long wooden tables. One side of the room was all doors, and at each of the doors stood a woman with one of those sets of keys. The other side was all windows, but the panes were tiny, so even if you broke one you’d only get your wrist through.
“Sit down.” She was given a shove by a passing woman in uniform. A bowl clattered onto the table before her.
“Porridge,” said the pale girl, who was sitting on the other side of the table. “There’s milk. Here.” She lifted a large pitcher and poured some for herself, then did the same for Ella. “The food’s not so bad.”
A young, dark-haired woman sitting beside Ella leaned toward them. “It’s mice,” she said, pointing toward the porridge. “They put them through t’feeder.” Her face was gray and sunken. She seemed to have no teeth.
Ella pushed her bowl away. Her stomach was cramping with hunger, but if she ate here, then it was inside her. It was real. And wherever this was, it wasn’t real.
“You’ve hurt your cheek,” said the pale girl.
“You should get it seen to.” The girl tilted her head to one side. “I’m Clem,” she said, and held out her hand.
Ella didn’t move.
“Your eyes look bad too.”
“They don’t look grand.”
“Can I take yours?” Mouse-woman’s breath was hot on Ella’s arm.
Ella nodded, and the woman curled the bowl toward her.
There must have been five hundred women in there, and it was noisier than the mill with all the machines going. An old lady on the other side of the table was crooning to a rolled-up shawl, rocking it in her arms, shushing it, reaching out with a finger and touching it. A uniformed woman walking up and down the lines stood over her and rapped her on the shoulder. “Give over with that rubbish and eat your food.”
The old lady shook her head. “Not till babby’s eaten first.” She began to unbutton her dress.
“There’s no baby,” the other woman said, raising her voice. She grabbed the shawl and shook it out, holding up the holey piece of cloth. “See? There’s nothing.”
“Babby! You’ve hurt my babby!” the old lady screamed, and fell to her knees, scrabbling on the floor. The uniformed woman hauled her up by her elbow. More women joined the commotion then, as though they’d all been given the signal to bawl. At the height of it, a bowl shattered on the floor.
“What did you want to do that for?” It was the same hard-faced woman from last night. The Irish one. Ella put her thumbs in her palms to grip them.
“You want the tube?” said the woman. “You want the tube again?”
Baby-woman was shaking her head from side to side and crying as she was dragged to her feet and pulled from the room.
Across the table, Clem was eating calmly. When she had finished, she put her spoon to the side of her bowl and folded her hands in her lap.
Ella leaned forward. “Where did they take her? Where did they go?”
Clem’s gaze flicked up. “To the infirmary.”
“So they can feed her through a tube.”
“Where am I?”
“Sharston Asylum.” Clem’s eyes were a still and steady blue. “Why, where did you think?”
Ella looked down at her hands, clasped into fists; she stretched her fingers on the table: eight of them, two thumbs. But they did not look like her own. She turned them palms up and stared. She wished for a mirror. Even that old piece of cracked rubbish they had at the end of the spinning sheds. The one they’d all elbow each other out of the way for on a Friday. Even that. Just to see she was still real.
She looked up. Doors. Nurses standing at each like jailers, carrying one of those big rounds of keys.
She’d heard of it. Since she was small. If you ever did anything stupid: the asylum. For the lunatics. The paupers. They’ll send you to Sharston, and you’ll never come out.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
An unusual love story but beautifully written. The setting was very interesting and informative, too.
The Ballroom by Anna Hope was inspired by an ancestor who had been admitted to an asylum in the early 1900s and eventually died there. She did research about an asylum in England on the edge of the Yorkshire moors and between those two things, she created this story. This is a beautifully written book with incredibly believable characters. The more historical fiction I read, the more I think that our history is nothing but dark, horrifying events, that hopefully we learn from. This novel touches on the topic of Eugenics and how many countries, England being one of them, pondered the legalities of forced sterilization of people having genetic defects or undesirable traits. It also deals with the many people who were institutionalized for various reasons that should not have been. The time is 1911 and the asylum was beautifully built, relatively self-sufficient and had an exquisite ballroom which was seldom used. The story is told from the perspective of three characters. Ella Fay was a young woman who had been admitted after breaking a window in the factory she worked in. Working from morning to night, she just wanted to see the sun. She was admitted to Shaston for “hysteria”, a common one used for women, anything out of the ordinary that your husband/father or employer thought was inappropriate. John Mulligan was an Irish man who had suffered the loss of his family. He ended up in a workhouse, then Sharston asylum because there was no other place for the city to put him. He was labelled with various things, one being laziness or intemperance. He was a good worker and was used to dig mass graves, work in the fields etc. Charles Fuller was a doctor who started off as a character that I very much liked. He tried to use music to get the patients to feel better. He started dances where the males and females actually came together instead of the segregation they live in. He was getting positive results until a trip to London. This is where the Eugenics comes in. It is very scary to read about what the beliefs were at that time. John and Ella fall meet at the dances, communicate via notes and fall in love. One night they manage to sneak out and spend the time together. These characters are so well written that you feel that you know them, are there with them and going through the same things they are experiencing. The secondary characters are just as well written. You will read details about the atrocities and lack of kindness common in asylums. You meet patients and your heart breaks for them. The romance in the story is tender yet heartfelt and the ending was amazing. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, even with a little romance thrown in. The publisher generously provided me with a copy of this book via Netgalley.
Unusual, interesting, different, and well written. The setting of the novel is an asylum. Four main characters are the focus - a doctor, a lady, a poor girl, and John. Each one has a fascinating story. This is an excellent novel. It includes letters, cruelty, fear, love, dancing, burials, escapes, a secret meeting, music, insanity, forced feeding, and more. The book deserves an A++++
I have always held a fascination for asylums of old, those secret places where the mentally afflicted were housed away from society. The Ballroom by Anna Hope gave me a glimpse inside such a place. The asylum is set near the Yorshire moors and takes place in the early 1900's. Wonderful descriptions and utterly fascinating characters made this story truly bloom. Sharston asylum is a bleak, dreary place, rampant with abuses. And not everyone who is housed within is insane. Ella was brought there because she broke a window in the mill where she worked because the windows were painted over to prevent workers from looking outdoors. Charles is the bandmaster at Sharston. He is not an inmate, but an employee who prefers being a musician rather than taking his exams to be a doctor. Clemency was brought there by her father and brother because she refused to marry the man they had chosen for her. And then there's John, a loner who is housed in the chronic ward where there is little hope inmates will heal enough to be released. He is tasked with digging the graves for inmates - six coffins atop each other per grave. When he's not digging, he's working the asylum's farm. Within the asylum's hopeless and dark corridors resides a gem - an elegant ballrom where certain patients are rewarded with a social dance. It is there where the four characters interact and meet, their futures colliding. If you want to read a book that will tweak your emotions, then this is the book for you. Highly recommended.
This was just a beautiful, deeply poignant piece of literature. I don't read historical fiction. It's just not my thing. But when I saw some friends' glowing reviews for this and heard about the setting being an asylum at the edge of the Yorkshire moors, I had to give this a go. The writing was stunning. I could literally see, smell, and hear it all. Told from three alternating perspectives, this is mainly the story of Ella and John, who, in the summer heatwave of 1911, are patients in Sharston Asylum. John, an Irishman, is no stranger to grief and has been labeled as melancholic. Ella has been given the for women at those times widespread diagnosis of hysteria. She broke a window in the dim and stale spinning mill where she was working. Ella and John are both under the care of Charles, a young doctor and keen musician. On Fridays, the normally segregated male and female patients are allowed to mingle for a dance in the imposing ballroom. A kind of fledgling music therapy idea. While the budding relationship between Ella and John was lovely to follow, it was Charles' evolution that made this into a riveting read for me. Seen as failing by his controlling father and struggling with his own repressed feelings, Charles starts to believe he can make a name for himself by supporting Eugenics research and the idea of forced sterilization for the "feeble-minded". The plotline involving Clem, a "private" patient and well-educated woman who loves books and whom Ella befriends, was also deeply moving. Anna Hope based this fictional story on the West Riding of Yorkshire Menston Asylum where her great-great-grandfather was a patient from 1909 until his death in 1918, and her extensive historical research becomes apparent when you read this dark and unsettling but beautifully written story. The epilogue made me shed a tear or two. 4.5 stars. Thanks to Random House Publishing Group for my ARC via NetGalley.
Shows in a personal way how misunderstood mental illness was at the beginning of the 20th century. Such well defined characters and heartbreaking love story...the first book to make me cry in a long time!