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Bare Lives
Part 2 – Dispossessed Bodies

Unclaimed Bodies, Feeble Minds in The Ballroom (2016): Anna Hope’s Visions of Asylum

Des corps non réclamés, des esprits faibles : Regards sur l’asile selon Anna Hope
Catherine Rovera


Dans ce roman situé en 1911, Anna Hope donne la vedette à tous les anonymes ayant servi de cobayes aux psychiatres et aux partisans de l’eugénisme avant d’échouer dans une fosse commune et, à travers la figure d’un médecin qui se rêve le porte-parole de Churchill, dévoile comment le corps politique contrôle les corps et les esprits de ceux qui furent stigmatisés en tant que retardés mentaux. S’il s’agit avant tout d’une œuvre de fiction, The Ballroom n’en est pas moins le fruit de recherches minutieuses dans les archives médicales qui l’ont inspirée. On se propose ici d’examiner la valeur fictionnelle qu’acquièrent les documents d’archives pour révéler (au sens photographique du terme) ces vies précaires jusqu’alors sous-exposées. L’accent sera mis sur les points de convergence entre éthique et esthétique, en particulier à travers l’utilisation du médium photographique.

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1The Ballroom, Anna Hope’s second novel, is set in a mental hospital on the edge of the moors, called Sharston and based upon the former West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum in Menston, West Yorkshire. From its inception in 1888, the asylum was meant to house people from the pauper classes, who ended up buried in communal, unmarked graves with no one to claim their remains. Yet, at the same time, it heralded a new compassionate approach, allowing patients to indulge in leisure activities or take up jobs as part of their healing process—even though, quite ironically, it tended to replicate the Victorian gender roles outside of its precincts: outdoor work for men, laundry work for women. Its experiment with music and dance therapy culminated in the Friday dance that took place in the magnificent ballroom from which the novel derives its title.

2Behind those high walls, the text gives us a glimpse into some ‘bare lives’, as defined by Giorgio Agamben in his seminal work Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life: lives that are endangered, expendable, stripped of their political existence and yet subject to sovereign violence which does not qualify as murder—in this case, being subject to forced sterilisation and force-feeding. Indeed, the story is set at the close of the Edwardian age and more specifically during the heatwave of 1911, while the country was in the grip of widespread social and political unrest, what with labour strikes and Suffragette agitation. But more importantly, this was also the time when the Feeble-Minded Control Bill was underway in Parliament. Sir Winston Churchill, the then Home Secretary, was among its drafters and advocated the forced sterilisation of mental defectives. Against this backdrop, the novel features three main characters, two inmates and one physician—Ella, John and Charles respectively—whose lives are shaped by the forthcoming government regulation.

  • 1 Ella Fay, a young woman, has been locked up for breaking a window in the cotton mill where she work (...)

3The Ballroom takes the form of three intersecting slice-of-life stories within an extremely compressed time sequence.1 Although clearly a work of fiction, it is the result of extensive research into institutional archives, namely medical journals, pamphlets and casebooks, and even personal records from the patients who were branded ‘pauper lunatics’. In the light of those documents, this paper will examine how the novel captures the defining moment when mental deficiency became a social and cultural construct closely tied to questions of class and gender, and the feeble-minded the new bogeyman. More importantly, it will explore how archives may act as fictional tools that bring to light such tenuous and hitherto underexposed (in a literal sense) lives, allowing them to acquire unprecedented visibility. It will therefore highlight many instances in which ethics and aesthetics thread together, not least through the use of the photographic medium.

Dancing with Darwin2

  • 2 This is an allusion to Rae Beth Gordon's compelling work Dances with Darwin, 1875-1910: Vernacular (...)
  • 3 Mary Dendy, a proponent of segregation and the founder of the Sandlebridge Boarding School, a colon (...)

4In his goundbreaking study The Borderland of Imbecility: Medicine, Society and the Fabrication of the Feeble Mind in Late Victorian and Edwardian England, historian Mark Jackson documents the rise of ‘amentia’ (mental deficiency) as a public policy issue. He notes that between 1890 and 1914, mental defectives ‘came to be perceived as a dangerous residuum or underclass’ (Jackson 34) and among them, the so-called ‘feeble-minded’ emerged as a novel category distinct from both ‘idiots’ and ‘imbeciles’. It is striking that in most social and medical reports from that period, the feeble-minded are granted a liminal status, being referred to as ‘the almosts’ or ‘borderland’ (sometimes even ‘borderline’) cases3. In other words, they are incipient lunatics. Neither idiots nor imbeciles, or not quite (yet) imbeciles, they find themselves on the threshold—one of Agamben’s frequently used terms. Their lack of determination or ‘undecidability’ (as coined by Zygmunt Bauman) makes them prone to ready conflations: ‘because they are nothing, they may be all’ (Bauman 56). By pushing back the boundaries of madness and sanity, they resist taxonomy and as such are construed as a threat to the social order.

5Although the term ‘feeble-minded’ applied to the mildest degree of deficiency, it was readily conflated with pauperism, crime and promiscuity—all four conditions being equated with a lack of moral restraint, an ‘innate want of self-control’ (226) in the words of Hope’s protagonist. Thus, in the collective imagination, the feeble-minded came to replace the chronically poor as the ticking time bomb that would cause society to decline. In the novel, Charles lumps them together: ‘Often it was difficult to differentiate the lunatic from the visitor, but whether it was poverty or feeble-mindedness that had marked them both it was difficult to tell’ (94). Here, the soon-to-be Malthusian doctor is the mouthpiece of middle-class cultural and sexual anxiety.

  • 4 Churchill warned Prime Minister Asquith in a memo: 'The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of (...)

6As early as 1910, Winston Churchil endorsed birth control as a way to prevent the decadence of the nation.4 However, it was not until 1913 that the Mental Deficiency Act came into force, delineating ‘feeble-mindedness’ as a legal category and rejecting compulsory sterilisation in favour of confinement. Thus, in the meantime, the feeble-minded found themselves caught in some kind of legal limbo, a life-threatening loophole, as their fate had not yet been sealed and the question whether sterilisation should prevail over detention was left pending. Not only could they be abused with impunity, but their survival as a species was also put at risk by the body politic: if eugenics supporters had already made great strides during the Edwardian period, they were now campaigning for selective procreation under a veneer of legality. The plight of the feeble-minded thus echoes Agamben’s concept of ‘inclusive exclusion’: they were being included in politics in the form of the exception—that is to say, they were ‘simultaneously turned over to the law and left bereft by it’ (Mills), in the words of one of Agamben’s interpreters.

7Hope’s protagonist (Charles) takes advantage of this void or legal vacuum. Churchill features prominently in his thoughts and his commanding figure casts a long shadow. Being utterly convinced that ‘[t]he Feeble-Minded Bill would be the true revolution the country need[s]’ (263), the psychiatrist reinvents himself as a would-be eugenicist. He answers the call for papers for the First International Eugenics Congress—due to take place in London in 1912—and reads many pamphlets, namely those written by Dr Alfred Tredgold and Dr Harry Sharp (both widely quoted by Hope). From the former, he draws the idea that unrestricted propagation of the unfit is bad for the nation as a whole and thus comes to embrace ‘negative eugenics’, that is to say attempts to preclude defective parents from reproducing. From the latter, he learns how to perform a vasectomy and sets his sights on John when he finds out about his and Ella’s ‘sordid act’ (282). The rhetoric used in those pamphlets, a blend of fearmongering and genuine concern for the betterment of mankind, gradually creeps into his mind and spreads like poison. Although the narrative is multifocal, we are privy to the doctor’s most inner thoughts—a recurring device in the novel—to the most chilling effect.

8For one thing, the fiery debate over eugenics corrupts his ethical path and he moves from a ‘restorative’ (73) to a punitive approach, ‘as though he was shedding skins’ (258). His backtracking is best exemplified by his prohibitive approach to dance and music, which leads him to ban the weekly ball altogether. Ragtime or ‘swing’ music (172), which he himself had ‘smuggl[ed]’ into the asylum, is now perceived as ‘contraband’ (174) and ‘redolent of depravity’ (255). The bootlegging metaphor suggests that in his eyes, music has lost its therapeutic value and become synonymous with transgression or sin. This is also true of dancing and Charles ends up sneering at his patients as he watches them during the Friday dance:

Look at them.
Grinning and gurning. Turning in circles on the floor. Jumping up and down and clapping their hands. Like children. Like stupid children. Like the idiots they are. (247)

9Charles’s inner thoughts may be read as an ironic counterpoint to Ella’s exhilarating experience when she dances with John for the first time during the Friday ball:

Next, a man who held too tight and pinched her waist, so she stood on his foot and he cursed her for it, and he was two dancers away, and her skin was so hot she thought it would blister, and the last man was a brown dank-smelling blur, and then it was him, and he was leading her in a circle around the other dancers, with his hand held low on her back, and he was speaking, but that was not like him, not like him to say things, and everyone was clapping, and she couldn’t hear, and perhaps she was imagining it, but then, as they parted, he bent to her ear. ‘You’re too pale’, he said. ‘It’s not fair’. (148)

10Here, the text draws an implicit parallel between dancing and spinning, in both meanings of the word: Ella gets dizzy whirling around, but she is also a spinner on the assembly line. Therefore its fluid unbroken rhythm could be mimetic of a polka or a waltz, but also of needlework. By contrast, Charles’s inner speech is unravelling, as evidenced by its jagged rhythm and the disruptive use of italics (above and below). By the end of the novel, his mind has become a ‘brawling cacophony’ (266) and a chamber of echoes, a repository of familiar words that ring hollow and merely reverberate back the speaker’s morbidity and self-serving motives:

An inoculation for the body of the Empire
The Feeble-Minded Bill
Likelihood of law being passed next year
Following the American example
Dr Sharp, Indiana Reformatory
Parliament broadly in support
Leading the pack
Eugenics Society
Home Secretary Churchill
Friend (295)

  • 5 As early as 1920, Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche, a lawyer and a psychiatrist respectively, released (...)
  • 6 One may intuit that although Hope refrains from drawing an explicit parallel between Dr Fuller and (...)

11Unconsciously, the caregiver has become an agent of propaganda. His belief in the laws of heredity—as evidenced by the phrase ‘hereditary taint’ (255)—combined with class prejudice and racial supremacy is a harbinger of Nazi ideology before its time. Likewise, his embrace of negative eugenics foreshadows in a less extreme way the euthanasia programme for the physically or mentally ill carried out in the 1940s by the National Socialist government, which is singled out by Agamben as the first state that was outright biopolitical5. The right exerted by medical or political authorities to dispose of lives deemed unworthy exemplifies what Agamben calls ‘thanatopolitics’ (politics administrating death or the politics of death). On a less tragic note, Charles’s prohibition of books, dance and jazz music also heralds the Nazi government’s campaign against Entartete Kunst or ‘degenerate art’ of the late 1930s.6

12More importantly, the novel reaches the point where social, medical and aesthetic theories entwine, as a close connection between Darwinism, primitivism and the treatment of mental illness emerges. Charles may well be called a ‘Darwinian psychiatrist’ (Showalter 104), a label used by Elaine Showalter when referring to late Victorian psychiatrists who believed in biological determinism and regarded the insane as ‘evolutionary failures’ (Showalter 108)—or freaks. With hindsight, the Friday dance is not only transgressive, it is also regressive: a reversion to a lower stage of evolution. The dislocated bodies of the patients are equated with degeneration, as well as anarchy and disorder, and the words that Charles associates them with—’swarm’, ‘vermin’, ‘rats’ (246)­—betray his scorn for and fear of the mob. Against the backdrop of industrial unrest, the parallel he draws between the heatwave and Darwin’s theory of evolution is especially significant: ‘The sun did strange things to people. It made them regress’ (168) [our italics]. But here, Darwin’s theory is debased—’warp[ed] and ben[t]’ (227)—to justify unnatural selection.

13Gradually, we suspect that Charles’s obsession with social and racial purity is a fig leaf for his repressed homosexuality and inner craving for John Mulligan; and indeed, the author drops quite a few hints, not least the sacrificial image of the surgeon ‘cupp[ing]’ (317) John’s exposed genitals as he is about to deprive him of his manhood. There is another telling scene in which Charles passes out and has a dystopian vision: John is bearing the scars of ‘GPI, far advanced’ (231), an acronym for ‘general paralysis of the insane’ or syphilis. John has been polluted because of his ‘mating’ (248) with Ella Fay, and that makes him the perfect test subject. Like the pharmakos in Ancient Greece, John is both poison and medicine, he is the scapegoat in a time of crisis. The summer of 1911, when the action takes place, is not the long golden summer of the coronation, but the deadly heatwave during which industrial and political unrest reached a peak. In this context, John’s unmanning serves a cathartic function and Charles’s botched attempt at sterilising him is both propitiatory and prophylactic: it is meant to prevent the spread of infection to the social body (‘An inoculation for the body of the Empire’).

14Yet, ironically, the displacement (‘GPI, far advanced’) merely bears witness to the doctor’s twisted, corrupt mind, just as the stream of consciousness technique—which is often used to record his random thoughts—does to his delusion of grandeur and incipient madness. His inner speech increasingly reads like a conflation of fact and fantasy. While ambitioning to ‘take his place in the pantheon of superior men’ (55), he detaches from reality and creates his own self-sustaining narrative, so that his imaginary letters to and conversations with Churchill act as a foil to John’s rousing love letters to Ella. Hit by what he himself calls ‘Midsummer madness’ (190) as a playful reference to Shakespeare, the psychiatrist finds it harder and harder to ‘get a grip’ (231) on his patients and on his own life.

Unauthorized Visions

  • 7 Here is Goffman's full definition: 'A total institution may be defined as a place of residence and (...)

15Psychiatry therefore appears as an instrument of social engineering/cleansing masquerading as science and as such, the novel may sound like a plea for the anti-psychiatry movement. Sharston is a ‘total institution’, as defined by North-American sociologist Erving Goffman in his seminal book Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates: a self-sufficient, secluded place in which what is conveyed is not cure but coercion, compliance. This ‘enclosed, formally administered round of life’ (Goffman xiii) often goes together with a series of degradation ceremonies or mortification processes, in which inmates are stripped of their usual appearance and identity.7 Hope’s novel chronicles what Goffman calls ‘the moral career of the mental patient’ (Goffman 125), that is to say the passage from civilian to patient status, and from citizen to subject. As we will see, the character who best exemplifies this form of disenfranchisement is Clemency Church, also known as Clem.

  • 8 Like the one edited by historian and photographer Mark Davis, Voices from the Asylum: West Riding P (...)
  • 9 According to Philippe Artières, even more than the psychiatric examination reports, those statement (...)

16One may argue that since the mid-nineteenth century and the advent of photography, medical casebooks8 have played a prominent role in the process whereby a civilian/citizen is degraded and downgraded to a case study, a specimen (both a sample and a type), while being objectified by the camera lens. Indeed, upon admission, each inmate was questioned and photographed without his/her consent, and sometimes under duress: Ella, for instance, is ‘strapped’ (58). In their authorized version—as reported by doctors and nurses—the patient’s case history and mental state often sound like a background check and a criminal record respectively. For one thing, in the casebooks, patient history is converted into a story told from multiple perspectives and written by several hands: the hospital medical staff, first and foremost; but also the relative who requested or the police officer who issued the confinement order9; and sometimes even the patient him/herself, through poems, letters, personal notes or diaries. As a result, he or she is largely dispossessed of his/her own life story. This is certainly true of John Mulligan, whose intimate letters to Ella are snatched by the nurse and their lovemaking recast into a ‘sordid act’ (282), a brutish ‘mating’ (248) by the doctor. But more generally, The Ballroom uses a multifocal narrative, a device which questions the assertions of medical authority as the patients are allowed to speak their own truth.

17Meanwhile, the casebooks testify to the part played by the photographic medium in the rise of feeble-mindedness as a concept. Not only was it used as a diagnostic guide to physiognomy, but it was also an encroachment, a tool to institutionalize male dominance over a whole section of society. Indeed, from its inception, psychiatric photography reflected the intricate interplay of gender and control, as evidenced by the work of Dr Hugh Welch Diamond, a psychiatrist at the Surrey County Asylum who pioneered medical photography in England in the 1850s. Diamond’s photographs were not only meant for record purposes and nosography, they also have remarkable aesthetic value. Showalter points out some similarities between Diamond’s portraits of his female patients and Julia Margaret Cameron’s Pre-Raphaelite-inflected compositions, what with the use of chiaroscuro, draperies, props and books, and with the models engrossed in regal or Ophelia-like poses inspired by the practice of tableaux vivants. This leads Showalter to assert, rightfully so, that in Diamond’s photographs of madwomen, ‘we are made to see the moral management of female insanity, as well as its reduction, in Victorian terms, to visual conventions. The act of photographing itself is a form of appropriation: a capture of the subject’ (Showalter 97).

  • 10 ‘La photographie aura donc été pour lui tout à la fois une procédure expérimentale (un outil de lab (...)
  • 11 Didi-Huberman mentions Charcot's’reconduction tous azimuts du transfert, fantasme d'omnipotence sci (...)

18This dramatised vision of madness reached a peak with Jean-Martin Charcot’s approach to hysteria. In Invention de l’hystérie: Charcot et l’iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière, Georges Didi-Huberman compellingly demonstrates that for Charcot, photography is a scientific, therapeutic and educational tool all at once10. But it is also a dramatic performance. Through the carefully set scenes and the choice of apparel, the female body is exposed, displayed to the voyeuristic gaze of the male audience attending the famous Tuesday lessons. Then, the hysterical trance is rehearsed and repeated ad nauseam in front of the camera, it is re-enacted in a way that may recall a circus act or a conjuring trick. Indeed, the doctor appears as a stage director and a puppeteer, a deus ex machina who monitors the hysterical fit thanks to hypnosis, using a wide range of props and tricks (cotton, ether, magnets etc). Transference is the way for him to assert his authority through what Didi-Huberman calls ‘dialectique de la séduction’ (Didi-Huberman 316) coupled with the delusion of omnipotence11. As a result, the carefully crafted pictures are a textbook case of empowerment at the expense of the female patient, and mental illness is both a cultural construct and an aesthetic performance.

19The portraits of previous inmates (both male and female) as can be seen in Mark Davis’s Voices from the Asylum: West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, are a far cry from Diamond’s and Charcot’s artifact. In those casebooks, there is a stark contrast between the sometimes skewed or patronising medical reports and the portraits in which patients emerge as autonomous, sometimes even self-conscious models. All of them achieve a humanness that far exceeds the constriction imposed by their ancillary position, blissfully unaware of what the future holds in store for them. Hope reveals that institutional archives radically altered her outlook and that after reading the casebooks, she viewed the asylum as ‘a more nuanced, complex environment, not just this bleak, monolithic place from which no one ever emerged’ (Miller). One may thus wonder how such visibility (which is sometimes disquieting) may be transposed into fiction, and how her characters regain some sense of agency.

  • 12 Once again referring to her research at the archives, Hope explains: 'I read extensively in the cas (...)

20By her own admission, one of Hope’s major concerns has been to give a voice—albeit a subdued one—to those who were written off as the dregs of society and kept out of sight, and to record their own words ‘erupting into the present’12. So the casebooks have been used as a template for some of the inmates at Sharston other than the protagonists. For the most part, those patients have no names, they hardly have any face at all. Even their voices are ‘distant and thin like ghosts’ (40), either a ‘fractious, flitting chorus’ (271) or an all-pervading echo. But however tenuous or disembodied they may be, their words are reported in ways that enhance their visibility on the page, for instance through the use of italics or the Yorkshire dialect:

‘Setmeonfire! Setmeonfire! Fireiscoming. It’scomingcoming’.
‘That’swhattheysaid. Burn out the devil. Burn him burn him’.
‘Oh! Oh please! Oh please help me!’
‘Why will you not ? Will you not?’ (151)

‘You don’t want to go in with the gawbers. You only go out feet first. If no one comes for you, they put you in the ground in a hole with five others. No name. And that’s where they kill them. They kill the babbies in there’. (59)

21Here, the use of free direct speech combined with vernacular language (‘gawbers’ refers to patients in the chronic ward) allows those anonymous women to emerge as autonomous subjects, relieved of scientific dogma—at least fleetingly, before some of them end up in the most dreaded paupers’ grave. In the first example, the blend of Joycean babbling and Babelian gibberish reads almost like poetry, as evidenced also by the page layout. As a result, the women’s chorus causes interference, white noise, and through its spectral presence, disrupts and challenges the prevailing viewpoint.

22But the one character who stands out and poses a major challenge to medical dominance is Clem. For one thing, she has come to Sharston of her own free will as a private patient, to stay away from her father and from an unwanted suitor. She thus features prominently in the doctor’s thoughts, both as an exception and a case study. There is a metafictional scene in which Charles is perusing the casebooks and relies on physiognomy to probe ‘the link between physical prowess and mental’ (101). While looking closely at the photograph of one of his patients, Miss Clemency Church, Charles is fully aware that ‘[t]he two halves of her did not fit’ (98): there is a blatant mismatch between her physical decay and her spirit of resilience, as evidenced by her chilling gaze ‘that dared the observer to look away’ (99). But her portrait nonetheless foreshadows her fate as she shall become this ‘wild thing, dangerously thin, the bones of her cheeks protruding so far it was possible to see the shape of the skull beneath’ (99). The doctor’s prognosis acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy: here again, the photographic medium is used to vindicate mental disorder.

23When the doctor takes away her poetry books and bans the Friday ball, Clem turns into a model of critical resistance: she goes on a hunger strike, until her life ends tragically in the wake of a force-feeding session. By this point, she has become a limit-figure between the human and the inhuman, and her plight exemplifies the thanatopolitical face of power. Clem’s hunger strike is both an attempt to regain sovereignty— ‘to belong to [her]self’ (136)—and an act of sedition. It is both a protest and a demand for new freedoms. She claims the mantle of British Suffragettes locked up in jail and ironically, she is treated as such by the doctor who retaliates by force-feeding her through the mouth in an obscene way that is nothing short of rape:

The patient was obstructive, tightening her lips, but Charles stepped forward and pulled them apart. He called for the steel gag […] and he found a gap – cutting the flesh of the gums a little in the process, blood running over his fingertips as he prised the jaw open wide, then secured it tight. A low moaning came from the patient now, but the eyes were the only things that moved. He was reminded of the time he read her notes, of placing his handkerchief over those eyes so that he might not see. Now though, he did not need any such props, now he stared back and it was she who looked away first. (280–281)

24Showalter draws an insightful parallel between the treatment of Suffragettes by the British authorities and that of insane asylum patients by psychiatrists: ‘The government responded by treating these women as hysterical; they behaved toward them as Darwinian nerve specialists had behaved in asserting dominance over their female patients’ (Showalter 162). Indeed, when Charles ponders about Clem’s ailment, he jumps to the conclusion that she displays ‘a typically middle-class disease’ (100), namely hysteria. Clem’s subjugation and abject treatment are clearly an act of retaliation for her daring to challenge the doctor’s authority and interpretation through the sheer act of looking him in the face.

25In a brilliant essay, Ewa Plonowska Ziarek supplements Agamben’s analysis in a most crucial way, arguing that the hunger strike ‘mobilizes bare life for emancipatory struggle’ (Ziarek 98). She draws a distinction between hunger strikers—especially the Suffragettes—and the inmates of concentration camps who are reduced to bare life alone. In that sense, she endorses the view of anthropologist Kyria Landzelius, for whom the hunger strike is a performance whose ‘corporeal rhetoric challenge[s] the discursive practices of power’ (Landzelius 83) as it replicates, usurps and exposes the hidden irrational violence of the sovereign state against the female body. But in the novel, Clem’s insurgency is crushed as it lacks a collective dimension, and the only successful way out of bare life is Ella’s, through pregnancy. Ella’s exultant belly at the end of the novel acts as a foil and an ironic counterpoint to Clem’s slumped, defeated body. And yet, by choosing her own death, Clem manages to retain some sense of agency, as Charles discovers, aghast, that she has died from self-inflicted razor blade wounds and he will he held accountable. At the end of the novel, the Shakespearean intertext takes over from the medical literature to describe the fate that befalls him: an ‘outcast’ who shall end up in ‘disgrace’ (327), having lost all sense of agency.

  • 13 He also writes: 'La rareté, le petit reste a sa beauté. Défendons non la beauté du monument mais ce (...)

26Commenting on some photographs taken in the 1950s by Roger Camar, a then-young psychiatrist who recorded for private purposes the derelict premises and appalling living conditions in two hospitals (in Paris and Tunis respectively), historian Philippes Artières coins the phrase ‘mémoire négative’, which could be translated as ‘counter-memory’: ‘Ces photos sont les archives d’une mémoire négative’, ‘[elles] témoignent d’une histoire qui, comme le disait Foucault, est restée dans un en-deçà’ (Artières 2009, 10). In a more personal essay entitled Dépouillement, subst. masc., Artières explains how and why he has been searching through minor archives, collecting and scavenging scrap papers, hunting for what he calls ‘la fosse commune des papiers’ (Artières 2013, 20). The metaphor of the communal grave resonates particularly well with the main topic of this article.13

  • 14 Hope's debut novel Wake is set on Remembrance Day 1920, against the backdrop of the memorial servic (...)
  • 15 This last quotation from Hope's debut novel refers to the maimed bodies and phantom limbs of World (...)

27Along the same lines, Hope’s use of archive material on the borderline between the public and private spheres is especially appropriate to record bare life, as it enables her to bring to light a whole section of the population who had been either underexposed or misconstrued, and largely erased from the collective memory. Moreover, one may argue that her second novel is more a snapshot than a memorial as it offers, instead of a panoramic vision, a cross-sectional view. Indeed, her purpose may have been not so much to retrieve those snippets of life and rescue them from oblivion, as delve into traces of marginal existence to record a raw ‘sense of absence’14 and even the ‘proof of absence’ (Hope 2014, 263).15

28Thanks to minor archives, Hope exposes some of the twilight zones of history that still haunt our collective memory like the phantom limbs of World War One. Rather than speak on behalf of those forgotten by official history and step in to fill in the blanks, the writer acknowledges the existence of blind spots and inconsistencies. There is no historical truth and no ‘metanarrative’, only biased, incomplete, fragmented narratives. That may be why in Hope’s fiction, vision often prevails over voice, as ‘bare lives’ acquire visibility largely thanks to the photographic medium. Hope uses archival documents both for their testimonial and aesthetic value: after all, besides being an invaluable cultural subtext, the casebooks themselves are a montage of facts and visions, at the crossroads of ethics and aesthetics.

Artières, Philippe, Dépouillement, subst.masc., Le lieu de l’archive: Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine, 2013.

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Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.

Artières, Philippe, and Jean-François Lae, L’Asile aux fous: Un lieu d’oubli, Saint-Denis: PU de Vincennes, 2009.

Artières, Philippe et Mathieu Pernot, L’Asile des photographies, Cherbourg-Octeville: Le Point du Jour, 2013.

Bauman, Zygmunt, Modernity and Ambivalence, Cambridge: Polity, 1991.

Brignell, Victoria, ‘The Eugenics Movement Britain Wants to Forget’, The New Statesman, 9 December, 2010, last accessed at on May 25, 2017.

Davis, Mark, Voices from the Asylum: West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, Stroud: Amberley, 2013.

Didi-Huberman, Georges, Invention de l’hystérie: Charcot et l’iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière (1982), Paris: Macula, 2012.

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Goffman, Erving, Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1961.

Gordon, Rae Beth, Dances with Darwin, 1875-1910: Vernacular Modernity in France, Farnham: Ashgate, 2009.

Hope, Anna, Wake (2014), London: Transworld, 2015.

Hope, Anna, The Ballroom, London: Transworld, 2016.

Jackson, Mark, The Borderland of Imbecility: Medicine, Society and the Fabrication of the Feeble Mind in Late Victorian and Edwardian England, Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000.

Landzelius, Kyria Marie, ‘Hunger Strikes: The Dramaturgy of Starvation Politics’, Einstein Meets Magritte: An Interdisciplianry Reflection on Science, Nature, Human Action and Society vol. 5, Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1999, 83–90.

Miller, Nicola, ‘A Home away from Home: Anna Hope’s Novel “The Ballroom” Has Links with our own Suffolk History’, The Millers Tale, March 19, 2016, last accessed at on May 25, 2017.

Mills, Catherine, ‘Giorgio Agamben’, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2005, last accessed at on May 25, 2017.

Showalter, Elaine, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture 1830-1980, New York: Pantheon, 1985.

Ziarek, Ewa Plonowska, ‘Bare Life on Strike: Notes on the Biopolitics of Race and Gender’, South Atlantic Quarterly 107.1 (Winter 2008): 89–105.

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1 Ella Fay, a young woman, has been locked up for breaking a window in the cotton mill where she worked as a spinner. John Mulligan, an Irishman diagnosed with melancholy, is digging mass graves for the patients who die in the chronic ward, after being transferred from the workhouse (just like Hope's own great-great-grandfather, who was admitted to Menston from the workhouse in 1909). The love affair that develops between John and Ella is cut short by the third protagonist, Dr. Charles Fuller, who plays a pivotal role in the ensuing drama. A talented violonist, Charles wants to blaze a trail by using music to heal psychological wounds. But his ambition to 'take his place in the pantheon of superior men' (55) alongside Winston Churchill eventually prevails over his benevolence, and he ends up using patients as lab rats. When he finds out about John and Ella's 'mating' (248), he sets out to perform a vasectomy on John, who narrowly escapes.

2 This is an allusion to Rae Beth Gordon's compelling work Dances with Darwin, 1875-1910: Vernacular Modernity in France, which highlights the influence of contemporary science (namely evolution theories, medical theories of degeneration, and hysteria) on the Parisian café-concert. Even though the context is radically different, there is in The Ballroom a clear link between Darwinism, primitivism and the treatment of mental illness. For one thing, medical, social and aesthetic theories converge to regard mental deficiency as a reversion to a primitive stage of evolution. Moreover, the connection between mental illness and performance is highly relevant for our analysis.

3 Mary Dendy, a proponent of segregation and the founder of the Sandlebridge Boarding School, a colony for the feeble-minded, made the case for special classes and schools for 'border-line children' in her work Feeble-Minded Children (1902). Dendy equated feeble-mindedness with deviance under the guise of sanity and hence dangerousness: '[I]t is not the very severe cases which are the most dangerous; it is the mild cases, which are capable of being well veneered so as to look, for a time at any rate, almost normal, against which there is most need to protect society' (Jackson 67). Dr. Alfred Tredgold, who was the chief doctor at the 1908 Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded, referred to the latter as 'borderland cases' (see The Feeble-Minded Control Bill, House of Commons meeting, December 5th 1911, Following her time as Ontario’s Inspector of the Feeble-Minded from 1906 to 1919, Helen MacMurchy published The Almosts: A Study of the Feeble-Minded (1920), a highly informative work about the problems feeble-mindedness posed to public health and more generally to society, namely crime, prostitution, venereal disease, illegitimacy, and alcoholism.

4 Churchill warned Prime Minister Asquith in a memo: 'The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the Feeble-Minded and Insane classes […] constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate. […] I feel that the source from which the stream of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before another year has passed' (Gilbert). This letter to the Prime Minister is dated December 1910, and indeed the Feeble-Minded Control Bill was not long in coming.

5 As early as 1920, Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche, a lawyer and a psychiatrist respectively, released Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens ('Allowing the destruction of life unworthy of life', to translate it literally) in which they endorsed the right for those suffering from chronic incurable mental illness to be put out of their misery. This was meant for allegedly humanitarian purposes and in the name of Erlösung or 'redemption' (105), a word used by Hope's protagonist to justify his treating patients as lab rats.

6 One may intuit that although Hope refrains from drawing an explicit parallel between Dr Fuller and the Führer, the analogy may well have been at the back of her mind, not least because of the words she puts in the mouth of her protagonist aiming towards 'the creation of a better race' (317). In an interview, she is quite explicit: 'Churchill, for example, has been very well served by history, and for good reason, but if you look at his language as home secretary in 1911, in its insistence on ‘racial purity’ and the threat to the race from social degeneration it’s really not so very far from Hitler’s a few decades later' (Miller). In her column "The Eugenics Movement Britain Wants to Forget", Victoria Brignell tries to pinpoint the moment when British scientists and political theorists began to apply Darwin's theory to human beings. After tracing the birth of Social Darwninism back to Sir Francis Galton (a cousin of Charles Darwin who features in Dr. Fuller's thoughts) and his 1869 Hereditary Genius, she lists some of the famous British writers and thinkers who became staunch advocates of eugenics, namely Sidney and Beatrice Webb (the founders of the Fabian Society), George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, leading economist John Maynard Keynes as well as political grandees like William Beveridge and of course Winston Churchill. She reveals that eugenics 'still received backing in eminent circles in Britain until well into the 1940s' (Brignell). Valuable information can also be found on the online archive of the Eugenics Society at

7 Here is Goffman's full definition: 'A total institution may be defined as a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life' (Goffman xiii).

8 Like the one edited by historian and photographer Mark Davis, Voices from the Asylum: West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, which is referenced in the Author's Note (Hope 2016, 347). Many photographs and various documents are also visible on his online archive at

9 According to Philippe Artières, even more than the psychiatric examination reports, those statements written by police officers or government officials are nothing less than the tipping point: ‘Ces procès-verbaux marquent le moment d'un basculement du récit de vie à la vie dans l'asile. Ils fixent une origine qui vaut condamnation’ (Artières et Pernot 249).

10 ‘La photographie aura donc été pour lui tout à la fois une procédure expérimentale (un outil de laboratoire), une procédure muséale (archive scientifique) et une procédure d'enseignement (un outil de transmission)’ (Didi-Huberman 52).

11 Didi-Huberman mentions Charcot's’reconduction tous azimuts du transfert, fantasme d'omnipotence scientfique’ (Didi-Huberman 317).

12 Once again referring to her research at the archives, Hope explains: 'I read extensively in the casebooks of High Royds for the period in which the book is set, and the patients jumped vividly from their pages; even the act of holding the casebook in my hands was powerful: the marbled covers, the smell of age, the photographs of the patients, and their own words, erupting into the present, making themselves heard' (Miller).

13 He also writes: 'La rareté, le petit reste a sa beauté. Défendons non la beauté du monument mais celle du banal, du commun. On m'opposera la majesté d'un manuscrit de Flaubert, la grandeur d'un carnet de Proust; je sortirai du fond de la boîte cette lettre reçue par Foucault d'un détenu qui raconte avec ses mots le quotidien de la détention en 1971. […] Il ne s'agit pas d'opposer une archive noble à une archive brute mais à la surcharge de l'auteur préférer l'austérité, la sécheresse du document orphelin'. (Artières 2013, 25-26)

14 Hope's debut novel Wake is set on Remembrance Day 1920, against the backdrop of the memorial service for the Unknown Warrior, following the government's decision not to bring any of the bodies home from the Western Front. In an interview, Hope reveals that she was 'fascinated by the extraordinary sense of absence and lack of closure this must have created for the families who had lost a loved one' (see ‘An Interview with Anna Hope’,

15 This last quotation from Hope's debut novel refers to the maimed bodies and phantom limbs of World War I.

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Référence électronique

Catherine Rovera, « Unclaimed Bodies, Feeble Minds in The Ballroom (2016): Anna Hope’s Visions of Asylum »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 53 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2017, consulté le 20 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine Rovera

Dr Catherine Rovera is a senior lecturer at the Université Paris-Dauphine and head of the James Joyce research team at ITEM-ENS-CNRS (Institut des Textes et Manuscrits modernes). Her main field of research is genetic criticism (more specifically the manuscripts of Jean Rhys, the Finnegans Wake notebooks and Virginia Woolf’s reading notebooks). Her research also focuses on the relationship between modernist writing and British popular culture, namely Victorian and Edwardian music hall. She is the author of Genèses d’une folie créole: Jean Rhys et Jane Eyre (Hermann, 2015).

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