My grandmother’s grandfather died in 1913, survived by his wife, Ann, and five children: four sons and a daughter, Margaret. The sons all married and left home; but Margaret, who was 35 when her father died, remained as her mother’s companion. At some point the two women moved a few miles across North London from their house in Canonbury to Belsize Park, where they lived together until Ann died in 1936, when Margaret was 58. After her mother’s death she had some kind of breakdown and her brothers arranged for her to move into a nursing home in Tetbury in the Cotswolds, a hundred miles and several worlds away from the city she had lived in all her life.
Some years later she was transferred to a Gloucestershire hospital: ‘when the money ran out’, according to one of her nephews, though it may also have had something to do with the creation of the NHS. My great-uncle remembered visiting her once in the late 1940s: the ward was large and crowded, he recalled half a century later, a ‘thoroughly wretched’ place. ‘Lying in bed, she stared up at us with haunted eyes.’ I don’t know when she died: an otherwise detailed family tree records only that she was alive at the time of the 1901 census. Her brothers were all good Christian men: one was ordained in the Church of England; another was a Unitarian deacon. I’m sure they all thought her plight, when they thought about her at all, terribly sad; but I doubt it ever crossed any of their minds that what they’d done to her might have been anything other than a normal way for the patriarchs of a respectable middle-class family to behave.
Sarah Waters’s novels – the first three set in the Victorian era, the more recent two in the 1940s – have always been interested in the ways in which English society has disposed of its more awkward or inconvenient members by locking them away in various kinds of institution. The secondary narrator in Affinity (1999) is a medium imprisoned in Millbank in the 1870s for fraud and assault. In Fingersmith (2002), a postmodern take on the Victorian sensation novel and in particular a reimagining of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, a plan is hatched to steal an heiress’s fortune by tricking her into an unsuitable marriage and having her committed to an insane asylum. Parts of The Night Watch (2006) are set in a jail during the Second World War, where conscientious objectors are among the prisoners who watch the bombs fall on London through the bars of their cell windows.
The narrator of Waters’s new book, The Little Stranger, is a GP in rural Warwickshire in the years immediately after the war. Dr Faraday demonstrates a cavalier willingness to bundle his patients off into long-term residential psychiatric care, more or less on his say-so; the second opinion of one of his obliging colleagues is a mere formality. Yet as the novel progresses, the balance of Faraday’s own mind is called increasingly into question. Who is sane enough to say who is mad?
Perceptions and definitions of mental illness change over time. The doctors at the asylum in Fingersmith include homosexuality and literacy among a patient’s symptoms. Later they decide that illiteracy is a symptom, too: crazy if you can read, crazy if you can’t. Once it’s been decided that someone is mad, everything that she says or does, not least insisting on her sanity, is taken as further evidence of madness. She is mad because people more powerful than her have decreed it so. It’s easy, especially for those of a conventional turn of mind, to think that what’s conventional is the same as what’s normal, and that what’s normal is the same as what’s sane. Since what’s conventional is determined by those in power, insanity may sometimes be another name for powerlessness.
Most of the main characters in Waters’s earlier novels are people whom conventional history has tended to overlook, on account of their gender, or their class, or their sexuality, or all three; there’s no shortage of lesbian servants. ‘Why do gentlemen’s voices carry so clearly,’ Margaret asks in Affinity, perhaps a little too obviously, as her brother is holding forth at her mother downstairs, ‘when women’s are so easily stifled?’ Gender and class roles are a less physical but no less restrictive form of institutional confinement: Waters’s ‘free’ heroines are constrained by the requirements of marriage (Fingersmith) or spinsterhood (Affinity), with corsets for straitjackets. (Just in case I’m making this all sound rather programmatic and worthy: it’s not, because Waters is too smart for that, and because the novels are too enjoyable.) And there may be a perverse kind of freedom in imprisonment: at least one of the people that Faraday has put away in The Little Stranger finds it a welcome relief from the pressures of the world outside – the asylum, for once, lives up to its name.
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