The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls

Are There Lesbians? Yes

What Happens?
After checking herself into a mental hospital, Emilie Autumn beings to find strange notes from another Emily. Are these pages travelling through time to warn her of strange doing at the hospital, or are they all in her mind?
cw: abuse, mental health, suicide, surgery, female genital mutilation, rape, forced prostitution, graphic violence

The Verdict:
Like EA, I too, have read one too many Victorian novels where the pretty female protagonist ends up in an asylum for no other reason than she represents a threat to the male order. As a long-term fan of the artist, I was very excited that this book had finally become available in a format within my price-range. I am also very glad that I never said “to hell with it” and purchased the original hardcover in all its $100+ shipping glory (welcome to life in Australia). I was alarmed by the sheer amount of misinformation that this book contains about mental health and psych wards, as well as by the way The Asylum… is presented as a biography. It is so much melodrama and juvenile writing and encapsulates every reason why I am wary of both self-published novels and private health care. Nevertheless, I persisted and managed to finish the entire book, though probably only through my own sheer bull-headedness.

Whether or not it is on purpose (and I am going to treat this book as a work of fiction) Emilie is an extremely unreliable narrator, becoming more and more so as the book progresses. Emilie’s response to checking herself into a mental hospital seems to be to immediately curse everyone around her, and lament the pathetic inevitability of her fate, even though towards the end she describes how upset she gets when people just let themselves blame their poor behaviour on their suffering mental health. I understand that this is easier to say on the other side of a depressive episode, as I have been there, but Emilie appears to lose all the rationality she so loves as soon as she is disagreed with! For these reasons, among others, I was thankful that the majority of the book is about the experiences of Emily-with-a-y. 

The description of the Asylum itself completely captured my imagination and I’m not afraid to say that I love the idea that so much of it was simply scenery! Every part of the novel emphasised this idea that “all the world is a stage, the men and women simply players” – from the referral of the inmates as “Ophelias” to the performance of surgeries. I think that for sure, The Asylum… will make a delightful musical. It would be easier to think that the novel had been written with the musical in mind from the very start, given the sheer drama contained within its pages.

Honestly, the part that annoys me the most is that this could have been a much better book if only it had been given a good, solid edit. I could get past the striped stockings, the voyeuristic dismemberments and “me against the world” attitude, if only there hadn’t been quite so much of it. Purple-prose naysayers, this is certainly a novel for you to avoid. Also, if you have strong opinions about the mental health system in your country, or even know a smidgen of it, you might want to steel your stomach. That being said, my knowledge is of the Australian mental health system, where you can get up to 10 psych sessions and medication all discounted by Medicare, and where, even if I am terrified of being admitted to a psych ward, I know I can expect a certain level of openness about the procedure of care. For all this, I am of dual opinions about The Asylum… because there are parts of it that capture the experiences of being depressed and suicidal so very well. There is equal emphasis on death as an escape and the feeling of not being able to trust your own brain. At times this book is capable of being incredibly touching, for all its sheer luridness and, as I said before, I think it will make an infinitely better performance than novel.

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