The Painted Bridge
In 1859 London, Anna Palmer is committed to an insane asylum by her minister husband. She is not psychotic but has embarrassed him by going off on her own to try to aid survivors of a shipwreck. Once in the asylum, she struggles to prove herself sane and finally to escape. She meets other women there who are victims of Victorian society, and a sympathetic doctor who has the odd belief that the new art of photography can reveal the inward mind and help in diagnosing mental illness.
This novel seems well researched. It vividly portrays practices in mental hospitals of the time, and gives the reader a painfully clear idea of the vulnerable legal position of women in Victorian England. Anna initially makes a quick decision to marry a man she hardly knows, because she is without means of support after her mother dies. She struggles with haunting visions of her own past, which she comes to understand in the course of the book. It’s impossible not to pity her in her powerlessness, but I found her hard to truly identify with. Her husband is a one-dimensional villainous fraud rather than a fully fleshed-out character.
The much belabored idea of photography as a diagnostic tool in psychiatry struck me as bizarre and did not hold my interest. The writing is often lyrical, and Anna’s desperation gives the book a thread of suspense. But at times it seemed the author was more focused on making philosophical points than in storytelling. In the end I was not caught up in the story and felt little involvement with the characters.