It’s such a pleasure today to share my review of Madwoman by Louisa Treger: due for UK publication tomorrow (9th June) by Bloomsbury Publishing, it will be available both in hardcover and as an ebook, and is available for pre-order (publication in the US and Canada will be on 23rd August). My thanks to the author and publisher for inviting me to share a review, and for providing my advance reading e-copy.
I can still remember my delight – way back in 2015 – when I discovered Louisa Treger’s wonderful writing with her first novel, The Lodger. It was the fictionalised life of Dorothy Richardson, a magnificent heroine, and dealt in a really original way with forbidden love, struggling with expectations and guilt, and the way in which creativity can be born through experience of heartbreak, all set against a vivid historical background. And I can also remember the way the book made me feel – that physical ache – along with the sheer beauty of the writing (you can read my full review again here, together with an interview with the author). Her second book, The Dragon Lady, was published in 2019 – this time the story of Lady Virginia “Ginie” Courtauld, another “extraordinary woman”, where the author took the bones of an intriguing her intriguing life story, researched the background quite impeccably, embroidered on it, drew you into the history and made it live, then turned it into an enthralling story with a mystery at its heart (you’ll find my review here).
When Louisa first contacted me about this latest book, I just couldn’t stop myself reading a little about the life of Nellie Bly – I guarantee you’ll probably find yourself doing the same – and was immediately tremendously excited by the prospect of her amazing story in the hands of such a talented author.
In 1887 young Nellie Bly sets out for New York and a career in journalism, determined to make her way as a serious reporter, whatever that may take.
But life in the city is tougher than she imagined. Down to her last dime and desperate to prove her worth, she comes up with a dangerous plan: to fake insanity and have herself committed to the asylum that looms on Blackwell’s Island. There, she will work undercover to document – and expose – the wretched conditions faced by the patients.
But when the asylum door swings shut behind her, she finds herself in a place of horrors, governed by a harshness and cruelty she could never have imagined. Cold, isolated and starving, her days of terror reawaken the traumatic events of her childhood. She entered the asylum of her own free will – but will she ever get out?
An extraordinary portrait of a woman way ahead of her time, Madwoman is the story of a quest for the truth that changed the world.
This really is a stunning read. I’m sure the reviews are likely to focus on Nellie Bly’s voluntary incarceration in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island – undertaken in an attempt to draw attention to the plight of the inmates and the wider social issues, but also to secure a post as a journalist with The World in New York. But I was equally fascinated by her early life – the young Elizabeth Cochran, her father (unusually for the time) encouraging her aspirations for a career using her talents, her mother’s more limited horizons for her daughter, the traumatic experiences that followed her father’s death, and her determination to forge a successful career in the male-only world of factual journalism. When she leaves her childhood nickname of “Pink” behind, she adopts the pseudonym of Nellie Bly – and, having moved from Pittsburgh to New York, comes up with an idea for a story that will ensure The World’s owner and editor take her seriously.
It proves astonishingly easy to convince the authorities that she’s insane – perhaps not too surprising when women are frequently locked away for simply failing to conform with society’s norms. But when she finds herself at Blackwell’s Island, the regime she experiences – appalling cruelty, “carers” drawn from the criminal classes, the constant edge of danger – takes her perilously close to the edge. With the support of the sole sympathetic doctor, she realises that having faked madness to gain entry, she then must fake sanity to have any chance of discharge – but that’s also dependent on the newspaper’s backing and intervention, and there are times she fears that her mission has been forgotten and that she’ll remain there to the end of her days.
And then there’s the afterwards, every bit as compelling – she might have achieved a level of fame and influence, shown what a woman is capable of achieving, driven an appetite for change that will improve the system beyond recognition, but she then needs to adapt to life in the world outside, mourning those she lost, taking up the opportunities that she risked so much to achieve.
That’s all about the story itself – one which would be totally irresistible to any author. But I loved the way the author used her raw material – first creating empathy and building engagement with her heroine, then following her through the vividly described hell to which she was subjected. Because of the subject matter, it’s never an easy read – but it’s certainly a thoroughly gripping one, absorbing and immersive, and all the more horrifying because you can feel the visceral authenticity of the account and the depth of research that underpins it.
There are moments from Nellie’s time at Blackwell’s Island that have seared themselves into my memory – the vicious attacks, the gratuitous cruelty, the sheer inhumanity, the cold and hunger, but also the incongruous “treats” like the moving pictures in the pavilion and the fairground ride. And if Nellie herself is sustained by the knowledge that her stay will (hopefully…) be a limited one, the stories of other inmates, the circumstances that brought them there, and the absence of any hope for the future are truly heartbreaking. But equally, Nellie’s own determination to shine a spotlight on their plight is absolutely inspirational – her life might have been changed by the experience, but the impact of her actions can change things for others. The author doesn’t simply tell her story – she does so in a way that enables you to experience every injustice, recoil at every wrong, rise to anger at every horrifying act, but also to will on her courageous protagonist and hope beyond hope that she will achieve the outcomes she strives for.
This really is an extraordinary piece of work, and it moved me deeply – it’s far more than an account of a largely forgotten heroine, considerably more than a well-researched and beautifully written piece of historical fiction. Totally unforgettable, and one of my books of the year.
About the author
Louisa Treger has worked as a classical violinist. She studied at the Royal College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and worked as a freelance orchestral player and teacher. She subsequently turned to literature, gaining a First Class degree and a Ph.D. in English at University College London, where she focused on early 20th century women’s writing and was awarded the West Scholarship and the Rosa Morison Scholarship “for distinguished work in the study of English Language and Literature.” The Lodger was published in 2014, The Dragon Lady in 2019: Madwoman is her third novel.