The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace

A beautiful cover, lovely endpapers, a few well-chosen words from Emily Dickinson, and then a striking opening scene.

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A woman was suspended, upside-down, and a young man was taking her photograph. He was a doctor, and his hypothesis was that the picture he took of her face would reveal the secrets within her mind.

It’s not just striking, it’s very clever and its beautifully executed. My expectations were cleverly shifted and questions about what was really happening filled my head. I was entranced.

A carriage pulled up outside. Mrs Anna Palmer, the young wife of an elderly clergyman arrived. She thought she had come to meet friends of her husband, but she was wrong. She had been very cleverly tricked, and she found herself incarcerated in Lake House, a private asylum for gentlewomen.

First she was astonished and then she was outraged. But she was utterly trapped. By the power of a cruel husband, by the strictures of Victorian society, and by her own nature.

Anna had spirit, she had a calling, but she found that to be taken as proof of madness. I must confess that I had doubts, I questioned her sanity. The line between vocation and obsession, sanity and insanity, can be so very fine…

But I cared. I knew that Anna did not belong at Lake House. I wondered how important sanity was, and indeed what it was.

Anna found friends. Dr St Clair was young and idealistic. Talitha Blatt seemed as same as Anna. Catherine Abse was a bright young woman. But one was an employee, one was an inmate. one was the daughter of the house. All constrained in different ways. They could give some help, some support, but the could not give Anna her freedom.

She had to do that for herself, but the more she struggled the more she was punished.

There are aspects of the story that are harrowing, but there are also aspects that are uplifting, aspects that are thought-provoking for so many other reasons.

Above all, Anna was an intriguing character and I had to find out what would become of her.

I wanted to know the stories of others too. So many diverse, wonderful characters. So many stories that might have been told. What had happened to them, before and after their lives and Anna’s crossed paths?

But this is Anna’s story. Quite rightly.

A wonderful story, rich in detail, touching on the history of medical science, the evolution of photography, the constraints society can place upon women, and the evil that men may do, both knowingly and unknowingly, to serve their own interests.

It’s told in beautiful, clear, literate prose. With perfectly judged suspense And with truths slowly becoming transparent.

I was held, my head and my heart, from the first word to the last.

The conclusion was stunning, unexpected, and exactly right.

Anna’s story, and the things it showed me, will stay with me for a very long time.

6 responses

  1. This one sounds like a stunner! I will always love the asylum theme. There is something so wonderfully gothic about it. I am so excited to see that my library has this on-order – going to place it on hold right now!

  2. I read something like this where women were held against their will and also against all medical ethics simply because their husbands/and in one story her father said so. Seems so cruel.

  3. I watched a film last night that pointed out in its end notes that what they used to term/diagnose as hysteria was only outlawed in 1952. Frightening to think what kind of power they had over women back then, this false diagnosis enough for a court to sentence a women to an institution and for the medical profession to remove her uterus.

  4. I read this one last week and loved it. Wonderful review. I agree it would be interesting to know more about some of the other characters at Lake House too, but equally I agree that this was indeed Anna’s story.

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