The Painted Bridge: A Novel

The Painted Bridge: A Novel

by Wendy Wallace

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JUST OUTSIDE LONDON, behind a high stone wall, lies Lake House, a private asylum for genteel women of a delicate nature. In the winter of 1859, Anna Palmer becomes its newest patient. To Anna’s dismay, her new husband has declared her in need of treatment and brought her to this shabby asylum.

Confused and angry, Anna is determined to prove her sanity, but with her husband and doctors unwilling to listen, her freedom will notbe easily won. As the weeks pass, she finds other allies: a visiting physician who believes the new medium of photography may reveal the state of a patient’s mind; a longtime patient named Talitha Batt, who seems, to Anna’s surprise, to be as sane as she is; and the proprietor’s bookish daughter, who also yearns to escape.

Yet the longer Anna remains at Lake House, the more she realizes that—like the ethereal bridge over the asylum’s lake—nothing and no one is quite as it appears. Not her fellow patients, her husband, her family—not even herself. Locked alone in her room, driven by the treatments of the time into the recesses of her own mind, she may discover the answers and the freedom she seeks . . . or how thin the line between madness and sanity truly is.

Wendy Wallace’s taut, elegantly crafted first novel, The Painted Bridge, i s a s tory o f f amily betrayals and illicit power; it is also a compelling portrait of the startling history of the psychiatric field and the treatment of women— in society and in these institutions. Wallace sets these ideas and her characters on the page beautifully, telling a riveting story that is surprising and deeply moving.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781451675306
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 07/17/2012
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 579,568
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Wendy Wallace, author of The Painted Bridge, is an award-winning freelance journalist and writer. Before she turned to fiction, she was a senior features writer for the London Times Educational Supplement for ten years and the author of a nonfiction book on life in an inner city primary school, Oranges and Lemons. Her second novel is The Sacred River. She lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

The Painted Bridge

  • Lizzie Button was upside-down. The crown of her head rested on the floor; her feet, in black laced boots, floated above her. Lucas St. Clair leaned his eye closer to the ground glass and brought her face into sharper focus, moving the brass knob back and forth to sharpen the grain of her skin, the strands of cropped hair that lay across her forehead. Her expression was wary. Lucas had trained himself to read eyes that signaled from below mouths, frowns that mimicked smiles. He ducked out from underneath the cloth, replaced the lens cap and looked at her in the flesh, right way up.

    “Are you comfortable, Mrs. Button?” he said, inserting the plate into the back of the camera. “Warm enough? Will you be able to keep still?”

    “Yes, Doctor,” she said, her lips barely moving. “Go on. Make my picture.”

    “Let us begin.”

    Tugging out the dark slide, he removed the lens cap with a flourish and began to count out the exposure.

    “… Two. Three. Four.”

    He could feel the familiar excitement rising in him. The hope that the picture would succeed even beyond his expectations and reveal Mrs. Button’s mind. “Eight, nine, ten.” That it would offer up the secrets of the world inside her head. “Sixteen. Seventeen.” Illuminate the mental landscape, the population of unseen persecutors and innocents with whom Mrs. Button conversed. “Twenty-three. Twenty …”

    The fernery door flew open behind him and the patient swung round toward it with a look of alarm in her eyes. Her hands began to pluck at a piece of wood, wrapped in a ragged white shawl, on her lap. Lucas heard a pair of feet wipe themselves repeatedly on the sack thrown over the threshold behind him as a voice rang through the air.

    “Stuck. Swollen from the rain, I suppose. Afternoon, St. Clair.”

    Lucas held up his hand for silence.

    “Thirty-one. Thirty-two. One minute, please.” Querios Abse crossed the brick floor and stood beside him. Abse wore old-fashioned trousers strapped under the instep and shoes that had molded themselves to the forward press of his big toes. His body was padded with an even layer of flesh, with his own mortal armor. He stood watching as Lucas continued. “Forty-nine. Fifty.”

    “That must be long enough,” he said. “Surely to goodness.”

    Lucas St. Clair counted on. “Seventy-one. Seventy-two.”

    His eyes, steady and clear, held the whole picture before him: Lizzie Button—her shoulders hunched now, her gaze fastened upon him; the carved wooden chair on which she sat; the plain canvas strung from the wall behind her and the spider that clambered over it.

    “Ninety-nine. One hundred. You can relax now, Mrs. Button. Thank you.” He flung the square of black velvet over the front of the camera and turned to Abse. “What can I do for you?”

    “Just dropped in as I was passing. How are you getting on?”

    “I’m making progress, thank you.”

    The cheer in Lucas’s voice belied his disappointment. The picture was spoiled, he knew already, the spell broken when Abse crossed the threshold. The patient had moved. On the plate, she would appear to have half a dozen heads and a score of ghostly hands fluttering over her lap. He wouldn’t develop the photograph. It would disturb Mrs. Button further to see an image of herself that looked as if it came from a freak show. He’d finished the exposure only to make the point to Abse that he ought not to be disturbed.

    “And what’s your opinion of Button here?” Abse jabbed a hand toward her. She was rocking back and forth on the chair, cradling the stick in her arms and humming. Abse lowered his voice a fraction. “Incurable, Higgins reckons.”

    “I can’t say yet, sir. I haven’t had a chance to make a print or to study her image.”

    “You’ve met the woman, haven’t you? You’ve read her notes. What difference does it make to see the wretched creature on glass?”

    Lucas had explained to him in detail the difference he believed the new science might make. The opportunity it offered to see the face in a settled expression, reduced to two dimensions, with all the accompanying clarity and possibility for close reading. Was Abse baiting him? Or did he just not listen?

    “It’s a scientific way of looking,” he said. “Free of the old prejudices and preconceptions. It can lead us into the minds of patients. Mind if I carry on, Abse? We can talk while I’m working.”

    Lucas stepped inside the dark cupboard and closed the door behind him, glad of the flimsy removal from Abse. He wore a long apron over his trousers, the pale canvas stained with what looked like sepia. His sleeves were rolled to the elbows and the neck of his shirt unbuttoned behind a lopsided blue cravat. His brown hair reached to his shoulders and his whiskers, his only vanity, were razored in a sharp line that reached from his ears to his chin.

    He inhaled the sweetish smell of ether as he lifted the plate out of the dark slide and lowered it into a bath of water. He would clean it off, reuse it another time. By the orange gloom of the safe light he prepared a new plate, gripping it between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, using the other to pour the collodion, tilting the surface back and forth, watching as the gummy tide rolled over the glass, then draining the surplus from one corner, drop by drop, back into the neck of the flask. Abse’s face loomed toward him from the other side of the small window of amber glass, his flesh and silver hair turned a sulfurous yellow, his red waistcoat the same tone as his black jacket. He dangled his watch in the air and tapped the face of it.

    “I haven’t got all day, St. Clair,” he called. “I’m expecting a new patient.”

    Lucas retrieved the fresh plate from the silver bath and secured it in the dark slide. He rinsed his long fingers with water from an old kettle that he kept on the shelf for the purpose and stepped out, blinking in the glare.

    The fernery had been an enthusiasm of Abse’s late mother but had long ago fallen into disuse. Empty of plants and with the stove in the middle lit only for his visits, the air in the old glasshouse felt damp and chilly year-round. The light was good though. It was shadowless north light, as scientific as light could be. It poured through the cracked panes of the sloping glass roof in a pristine abundance that Lucas found, despite his atheism, miraculous. Lux aeterna.

    “Finished with the dark arts, have you?”

    “Not yet.” He wished that Abse would take his leave. Mrs. Button wouldn’t be able to settle until he did. Nor would he, come to think of it. “You expect a new patient, Mr. Abse?”

    “Yes, she’s due any time.” Abse cleared his throat and rocked on his heels. “There was something actually, St. Clair. We’ve got the inspectors coming in again before long. Of course, they never say when. I want more of the pictures on display, in the dayroom. Gives the place an up-to-date look.”

    Lucas hesitated. “Very well. I’ll hang them myself, on my next visit.”

    Abse walked toward the door. “Good. Best be off,” he said. “Oh, and St. Clair!”

    “Yes, sir?”

    “Don’t forget to tell me what ails Mrs. Button. If your photograph speaks to you in the privacy of your darkened room. Tells you any more than doctors with a lifetime of experience have been able to see unaided.”

    Lucas cleared his throat.

    “Shall do.”

    “Bloody old sod,” Mrs. Button said over the sound of Abse’s departing chuckle as the fernery door banged shut.

    Lucas watched as Abse made his way along a path edged with box and out of the walled garden. He disliked the idea of his pictures being pressed into the service of a publicity campaign, pasted up like advertisements for cocoa powder or soap flakes before their true utility in diagnosis had been properly established. There was something dishonest about it. He squashed the objection. He had to keep Abse in favor of the project, needed his agreement in order to continue visiting Lake House. It was a small price to pay for the opportunity to pursue his research.

    He stooped under the cloth again and began to readjust the focus of the expensive French lens. Poised on her head, her old print dress sailing above her, Lizzie Button had grown still. Her expression had changed, her mouth curving downward in a slight smile, her eyebrows lifted quizzically toward the ground. She looked almost hopeful. Lucas threw off the velvet and straightened up, inserting the dark slide into the camera back with one practiced movement.

    “I’m so sorry for the interruption, Mrs. Button. Shall we start again?”

    *   *   *

    The cab lurched through the gates and along a driveway edged with tall trees that still clung to the last of their foliage. Red and gold leaves fluttered on near-naked branches as if the stately oaks and beeches were down to their undergarments, to petticoats and one stocking. Anna glimpsed the house through the glass and got an impression of its great flat front, of ivy encroaching on the top windows. It had a half-blind look that reminded her of the flint house.

    “As you see,” Vincent said, “it’s a fine place. Comfortable. Well situated.”

    “Very fine. Who are your friends?”

    “You’ll find out soon enough.”

    He climbed out, his feet crunching on the scatter of gravel as he headed for the studded double door. Glad to escape the confines of the cab, Anna jumped down onto the mossy stones and followed Vincent to the porch. She hoped she looked sufficiently presentable. Her boots were still stained with salt from the trip to the coast; she had on her old blue velvet dress, with the lace collar. She disliked the two new dresses Vincent had bought her on their marriage. The wool irritated her skin and the dark hues drained her face of color. She pushed a few escaped strands of hair back into her tortoiseshell combs, while Vincent heaved on the bell.

    A maid led them through a hallway and on into a room lined from skirting board to ceiling with shelves crammed with books and ledgers, heaps of yellowing papers pushed in like thatch on their tops. The floor was as crowded as the walls: curios, chairs stacked with more files, a stuffed fox in a glass cabinet.

    “What a funny old place,” she said, glancing around. “It doesn’t look as if anyone ever reads the books.”

    “Good afternoon, Reverend.”

    She jumped. The voice came from a man halfway up a ladder propped against one of the bookshelves. He climbed down and hurried across the room toward her, brushing a hand on his red waistcoat, extending it. His hair was silver, brushed upward on both sides of his head; he had a signet ring jammed onto his little finger.

    “Querios Abse. Welcome to Lake House.” He shook Vincent’s hand then hers, holding it a moment too long as he regarded her. Anna disentangled her hand, turned away from his avid stare. “I take it this is she?” the man said to Vincent. He pulled Vincent toward the door and they began to talk in low voices, facing away from her.

    The wind gusted again outside; threadbare curtains belled inward from the windows then subsided. Anna felt a rising sense of indignation. She’d missed her appointment with her sister, traveled all this way and wasn’t even going to be invited to sit down. She pretended to examine a globe on a stand, spun it on its axis through China, Persia, Abyssinia, until she found England, its dear, peculiar outline. Wheeling it more slowly, she trailed her fingers over the lumpy surface of the Atlantic. She would visit Louisa tomorrow. She’d go early.

    She looked up to find both men regarding her.

    “Oh, yes,” Vincent said. “Excellent physical health.”

    He came toward her with a look of regret, holding his hat against his chest.

    “Anna, I believe it best if … Thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.”

    “What do you mean, Vincent?”

    Anna was perplexed but her voice was eager. She wanted to offer forgiveness, even before she knew for what. For what didn’t matter. What mattered was that they pulled together, each played their part. That was what marriage was, as far as she could make out.

    “Good-bye, Anna.”

    He made a stiff little bow, walked backward to the door and disappeared through it. He was there and then not there, like one of Louisa’s phantoms. She began to follow but the man called Querios Abse stepped in front of her, holding out both arms as if he herded an unwilling sheep.

    “One minute, Mrs. Palmer. I’d like to introduce you to someone.”

    “Where’s my husband gone?”

    Another door opened at the far end of the room and a woman crossed the floor, the clip of her heels on the boards deadened as she reached the rug.

    “This is Fanny Makepeace,” said Abse. “Our matron.”

    “Good afternoon, Mrs. Makepeace. I’m leaving now, if you’ll excuse me.”

    “Your bonnet, Mrs. Palmer,” the woman said, holding out a hand crowded with rings. “Your cloak.”

    Everything about Makepeace appeared ordinary. She was in middle age and of medium height, her brownish hair drawn tightly back to display a pair of deep-set eyes that looked at Anna without expression. Yet Anna’s skin prickled with unease at the woman’s proximity; she was unable to meet her cool stare.

    “I’m going,” she repeated. “I’m not staying.”

  • Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for The Painted Bridge includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


    Just outside London, behind a tall stone wall, lies Lake House—a private asylum for genteel women. In the winter of 1859, recently married Anna Palmer becomes its newest patient, tricked into leaving her home and incarcerated against her will. With no doubts about her sanity, she is convinced that she will be released as soon as she can tell her side of the story. However, Anna quickly learns that her freedom will not come so easily. The proprietor of Lake House needs patients in order to keep his madhouse in business, and her new husband has much to gain from her absence. But the shabby gloom and odd occupants of the asylum yield some hope: the young visiting physician, a photographer who believes his pictures can reveal the set of a patient’s mind; a longtime patient who seems, to Anna’s surprise, to be as sane as she is; and the proprietor’s bookish daughter who also yearns to leave.

    Yet the longer Anna remains at Lake House, the more she realizes that nothing is as it appears. Not the asylum, the patients, her marriage, her family—not even herself. Locked alone in her room, she begins to experience strange visions and memories that may lead her to the truth about her past and to freedom—or take her so far into the recesses of her mind that she may never escape.

    Topics & Questions for Discussion

    1. What is the line between sanity and madness? How do you prove that you’re sane if others say that you are insane? What would you say if you were in Anna Palmer’s position to try to convince your captors that you are compos mentis?

    2. “What mattered was that they pulled together, each played their part. That was what marriage was, as far as she could make out.” (MS-pg. 6) This description of Anna’s expectations of marriage is cynical, but a better description of her life with Vincent than she could ever imagine. What really makes a marriage work? Were there warning signs that their marriage would be doomed? Are there any examples of happy or stable marital relationships in The Painted Bridge?

    3. How does Lucas St. Clair’s theory about photography as a diagnostic tool serve as a metaphor for the treatment of the mentally ill in the Victorian era? Do you think there’s any truth to St. Clair’s original hypothesis? Can photography possibly be a window to the soul?

    4. The lack of understanding about mental health in the Victorian era allowed for the subjugation of Anna and her fellow asylum inmates. But what about the women outside of the asylum, like Emmeline and Catherine Abse, Louisa and Maud? In what ways were they oppressed or imprisoned? How did they fight back?

    5. “I find it easier to escape Lake House by accepting one’s situation rather than struggling against it,” says Talitha Batt on MS-page 51. Does Talitha’s strategy of acceptance provide comfort for Anna? Does it ultimately work?

    6. Even the name Querios Abse sounds sinister, and he proves more out of touch and sadistic as the narrative progresses. Does his character have any redeeming qualities? What did you make of his obsession with his peacocks? Do you think happiness is possible for any member of the Abse family?

    7. Is there any chance that Anna is actually insane? Did you ever suspect, in your reading, that her visions of the sea and the lost boy were a manifestation of mental illness? Is Anna a reliable narrator?

    8. What does the Fasting Girl represent to Catherine? What does she symbolize as far as the treatment of women in the Victorian era?

    9. Did you expect that Anna and Catherine’s escape would be successful? If she hadn’t returned to Lake House, could Anna have made it on her own as an escapee?

    10. Anna’s friendship with Talitha Batt and the other women confined to Lake House is a saving grace in an otherwise unbearable situation. Do you have any friendships that have saved you? Were there any other ways that the women could have banded together to fight against the injustice of the Lake House?

    11. Makepeace, we learn, is a former patient who became matron of Lake House. Was there ever any hope for her? What coping mechanisms has she used to survive? How would you describe her character?

    12. After a variety of inhumane treatments, Anna has a realization that she shares with the magistrates: they may have broken her down, but “nothing short of murder can kill me” (p. 258). Do you agree that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? Or that there is an essential piece of you that cannot die until you do?

    13. How is the titular painted bridge a metaphor for the events that take place in the novel?

    14. How do you think Anna and Lovely will do on their own? Do you think there is a possibility for a romantic future for Anna and Lucas St. Clair?

    15. While this is a historical novel do you think the themes and issues Wendy Wallace addresses are relevant today? Discuss.

    Enhance Your Book Club

    1. Lucas St. Clair believed, at first, that he could diagnose mental disorders simply by looking at photos of a person’s face. He eventually rejects his own theory, however there’s still much to be gained from studying a photographic portrait. Take photos of everyone in your book group. Experiment with focus, perspective, color, and lighting to explore how each image can take on a variety of interpretations, depending on your frame of reference.

    2. Anna is neither a needlewoman nor a watercolorist, so finding activities to pass the time at Lake House proves difficult. But she loves to dance, so much so that she dances in the day room to a polka she hears in her head, and her spirits are briefly lifted. Ask each member of your book group to bring her or his favorite song to your next meeting, let go of your inhibitions, and dance your feelings!

    3. Wendy Wallace, the author of The Painted Bridge, conducted extensive research on the Victorian era in order to accurately depict the time period. Assign a topic to each member of your book club for further exploration and research: How did women dress in the mid-Victorian age? What did they eat? What were their occupations? Their hobbies? Share your findings with your group and discuss how your research affected your reading of The Painted Bridge.

    Customer Reviews

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    The Painted Bridge: A Novel 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
    mrssherrieb1 More than 1 year ago
    This will definitely go on my "best of 2012" list. Just the right amount of tension/suspense really kept the pages turning for me.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Droning, repeating, depressing. Don't waste your time.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I was unsure about this book. Thought it might make me depressed. Although the subject matter is dark, it was very interesting. My curiosity was captured.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    VannaLynn More than 1 year ago
    I loved the amount of detail the author put into researching various things of the era (example the photography techniques). I was very emotionally consumed by the book and felt angry, excited, and sad for Anna (protagonist). I loved the mystery and the pain that the novel offered. Overall, a great book!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Excellent fiction story.
    GentryC More than 1 year ago
    Well written easy read. A woman's tale i never dremed of. I was angry, scared and happy for Anna. Could not put this onedown.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    The premise of this novel seemed intriguing, but try as I might, I just couldn't bring myself to finish this novel. It started off interestingly enough, but as i continued with it, I started to become a little bored. The main character seems a little flighty and weak, and her reason for doing the things she did in the beginning a little unbelievable. The other characters just weren't solid enough to add anything interesting to the story. By the middle of the book, i just didn't care enough to finish it. Maybe I didn't read far enough to get to the truly enjoyable part, but this one just fell short for me.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    DSaff More than 1 year ago
    Locked away in an asylum? For what? This is the question Anna has to ponder when her husband surreptitiously drops her off at an asylum. "Lake House" was set up to care for women of means who seemed too delicate for the outside world. But Anna? No, she didn't belong there and knew she had to find a way to prove it. The how was the problem, however, as no one was really honest with her nor did they want to believe her. Her husband, Vincent, was determined to leave her there and her doctor agreed. But, there were periodic rays of hope around Anna. One doctor was convinced that he could capture the truth about a person's mind with a picture. Could her photograph prove that she was sane? She had also met others who, like herself, wanted to be free. But would they be able to cross the bridge to that freedom? Come along and read Anna's story and find out just how thin the line is between sanity and madness. Take a trip in time to London in the winter of 1859. What a wonderful debut novel! It is hard to put down and very well written. There is suspense, mystery, and the absolute feeling that you want to help Anna and the others. Wendy Wallace has a very bright future, and I can't wait to read more.
    shanbritts More than 1 year ago
    I waited months for this book to come out, worth the wait for sure! - I couldnt put this book down, wondering where it was taking me? I kept saying to myself "why, why, why"! Great read, I'm sure you will enjoy it as much as I did!!!!