The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace is a gripping tale of the struggle between madness and sanity against Victorian perceptions. This novel will rock and shake your soul from the first page when Anna Palmer is abandoned in an asylum by her husband. It is only later that Anna realises the extent of her husband’s deception and turns her thoughts to escape. A truly heart-in-mouth story.
Below you can read extracts from the book itself followed by some of the author’s insight into her writing, her story and the sad reality that was faced by many Victorian women.
“The fire was out and the room felt dead too, the air still and cold and stale. Anna sat down on the bed and looked at her feet in the pair of shapeless slippers they’d supplied in place of her boots. She felt sick with disappointment.”
Patients in asylums were sometimes deprived of their own footwear, perhaps to stop them running away. I included this detail because it seems to communicate something about loss of autonomy. The actress Sheila Hancock said that once she had on the right footwear, she was ‘in character’. Part of Anna Palmer being negated in the asylum as her own person is the loss of the well-worn brown boots she always wears, that have carried her through the last couple of years of her life.
“The feeling grew stronger. She got up and clutched at the wash-stand, leaned against the wall then stumbled to the bed to lie down. Waves of nausea rose from her stomach, up through her chest, her head. She jumped up from the bed as Lovely rushed in and set down a tin bowl. A stream of liquid spurted out through Anna’s mouth, spattered across the bottom of the bowl.”
Anna initially thinks her feeling of sickness arises from disappointment; she has just seen a doctor who she hoped would free her but who didn’t listen to her story at all. Actually, the sickness is coming from the ‘blue pill’ the doctor has forced down her throat. Emetics – drugs to make a person violently sick – were a standard treatment in the mid-19th century.
Antimony, a toxic chemical now used in fire retardants, was employed to keep people in a state of nausea, and continued in use well into the early 20th century. Strychnine, more commonly known as a rat poison, was also used. Drastic purges, quantities of castor oil and rhubarb extract, to cause patients to empty their bowels, were routine.
“…’How does anyone get out of this place?’ Anna said, between heaves of her stomach. Lovely held a cup of water to her lips.
Martha Lovely is Anna Palmer’s attendant – or keeper, as they were then known – in Lake House. Lovely is expressing the fact here that there are more factors at stake than simply a woman’s mental health, in relation to being inside or outside an asylum. Anna Palmer has been incarcerated in a private asylum after her husband persuaded two doctors of his acquaintance to sign certificates of her insanity.
In the mid-19th century, women could be certified insane for conditions such as depression, alcoholism and stress. Anna, who sees a persistent, troubling vision, and who went on a mercy mission to a shipwreck without permission from her husband, has been classed as a hysteric and has no freedom to leave the madhouse.
I hope that readers of The Painted Bridge will form their own opinions as to her state of mind. In the last extract, below, resting after the poison-induced sickness, Anna Palmer casts her mind back to events of recent weeks.
“…..The Katerina lay a little distance away from the land, half submerged, sinking as the waves broke over her then rising up between the swells, water pouring out of her portholes like tea from a pot. Anna hesitated, standing at the water’s edge. The sea under the morning sun did not appear a killer. It advanced playfully, surge by small surge, retreated again. She knew what she must do. She took a deep breath and waded into the shallows, first gasping then crying out loud from the cold, sifting branches of podded seaweed and splintered lengths of driftwood through her hands, plunging her arms in deeper. She knew even as her empty hands trawled through the water, her fingers in violent pain, that she would find nothing. The sea had swallowed hundreds of adult men, without trace. And the newspaper report had said that the boy had been rescued alive. Yet she’d been compelled to search for him in the water. She couldn’t quite understand it.”