Karina M Szczurek reviews Louisa Treger's 'Madwoman'
Nellie Bly tricked her way into a mental asylum where she wrote about her time there, exposing the horrific experiences the women endured
“If Hell existed in the universe, it was right here,” Nellie Bly thinks to herself only a few days into her confinement on Blackwell’s Island. It is 1887, and the asylum, just off the coast of New York, is “a socially acceptable way of disposing with inconvenient women”. The difference between Nellie and the other women locked up in this hell on earth is that she is there of her own free will. Bly faked insanity to be admitted. She is one of the most dangerous of “inconvenient women” — one with a voice. Madwoman is her story.
Louisa Treger, the author of Madwoman, is carving out a place for herself as one of the leading writers of biographical fiction. Her debut, The Lodger (2014), told the story of Dorothy Richardson, a nearly forgotten contemporary of Virginia Woolf. Her second novel, The Dragon Lady (2019), reimagined the life of Lady Virginia Courtauld, another unconventional woman way ahead of her times.
In Madwoman, Treger returns to an intoxicating blend of fact and fiction to throw light onto a dark chapter of the history of mental asylums. Nellie Bly was brilliant, talented and daring — attributes patriarchy finds mostly unacceptable in women to this day. Towards the end of the 19th century, society diminished and destroyed woman like her at every opportunity. Yet, despite nearly insurmountable challenges, Bly managed not only to become one of the first proponents of investigative journalism and the first American woman war correspondent, but also entered an unusual marriage, travelled the world beating the fictional record of Around the World in Eighty Days, and for a while was one of the chief industrialists of the early 20th century.
Bly came to prominence after spending 10 days on Blackwell’s Island and writing about the horrendous experience. Her articles exposed the true insanity of such places, run by greed and cruelty. Madwoman focuses on Bly’s time there and the preceding years of her childhood and adolescence which were shaped by the loss of her beloved father, her mother’s tragic remarriage, and her first attempts at journalism when women’s voices were consistently ridiculed and silenced. She resisted the path of obedience society chose for her, believing and hoping there was more to life than marriage and motherhood. Above all, she wanted to have the power to choose her own path, to become “the person she was meant to be”.
Madwoman is also about the power of telling one’s story. Throughout her ordeal, the novel’s protagonist holds on to the idea that “storytelling would get her through this”. She remembers how her mother’s haunting stories made her feel and the impact her early articles about working-class women had on the reading public, and she understands that her reporting has the potential to change the world. She risks her life to prove it.
Just as Bly did not spare her readers any of the harrowing specifics of what life was like for women of her time, more than a century later, Treger brings them in full detail to our attention in Madwoman. The timing couldn’t be more auspicious. Millions of women still do not have full autonomy over their bodies, desires and dreams. And many of us who had a semblance of it, are again in the process of losing the rights we had gained. Nothing can be taken for granted. Madwoman is not only a historical but also a prescient reminder of what is at stake.
Louisa Treger on writing her third novel Madwoman
March 2019: London went into its first lockdown. My ex-husband and I were separated but still living together, waiting for the family home to sell in a non-existent property market. I was lost and anxious, struggling to adjust to the pandemic and to single life after over 20 years of marriage. At first, I watched infection rates rise and waited for the prime minister’s next announcement. The ex and I avoided each other. There were OK days, and really bad ones.
When our children came home from university, I felt better knowing they were safe with me. Having them around constantly took me back to the time when they were small, but without all the hard work of parenting. We took it in turns to cook, sometimes dressing up for a “night out” at home. We went for long walks through a city that had become a ghost town; eerie and beautiful. The air was as sweet as the countryside because there were so few vehicles out. The skies were deep and blue, crocuses and daffodils grew thickly, trees burst into clouds of blossom. I took it all in and realised there was another reason to be thankful: my work was unaffected by lockdown. As an author, I am used to sitting at home alone, talking to imaginary friends. I was writing, Madwoman, a fictionalised life of pioneering journalist, Nellie Bly, who faked madness and institutionalised herself in an asylum to expose the wretched conditions there. I was gripped by Nellie’s story, but this was the first draft, and the writing was slow to come to life.
At the end of March my ex tested positive for Covid, and everything went downhill. He was very ill, not far from being hospitalised, and I was worried about him and worried the rest of us would catch it. To protect the kids, I took on the role of his caretaker — an experience we both found stressful. I watched the children for symptoms — thankfully, there were none, but we all succumbed to claustrophobia. That house didn’t have a garden, and for a fortnight we were stuck inside, watching sunlight pour tantalisingly through the windows. Our dog, Monty, suffered the most. We would throw the ball for him indoors, wanting him to play and exercise, but he’d simply fetch it and take it straight to the front door, refusing to move and looking up at us with “Please take me out” eyes. Oh, Monty, if only we could have explained it to you.
With Monty at my feet, I turned more and more to my novel. Writing has always been a panacea, getting me through bad times. What I was living through in some ways paralleled Nellie’s experience in the asylum — locked in with an angry patient, fearful and anxious, losing touch with reality as I knew it — and I began to pour my emotions into the writing. And a marvellous thing happened: it caught fire, gaining depth and richness, and giving me catharsis. My ex recovered, and Monty went for walks again, mad with joy. The children returned to university; two of them graduated this summer. I hope there will never be another pandemic, but the crisis made Madwoman a stronger book, and for that I am grateful.