Wildthorn by Jane Eagland - Seventeen-year-old Louisa Cosgrove longs to break free from her respectable life as a Victorian doctor's daughter. But her dreams become a nightmare when Louisa is sent to Wildthorn Hall: labelled a lunatic, deprived of her liberty and even her real name. As she unravels the betrayals that led to her incarceration, she realizes there are many kinds of prison. She must be honest with herself - and others - in order to be set free. And love may be the key... From Amazon UK
Jane Eagland wrote a guest post for Sex in Teen Lit Month back in 2009 about Wildthorn, so I knew I had to review Wildthorn as soon as I decided to hold LGBTQ YA Month. I'm not the biggest fan of historical fiction, but I found I really enjoyed it!
Louisa Cosgrove is on her way to be a companion to the daughter of the Woodville family. However, when she arrives, Louisa is shocked to discover that she isn't at the Woodvilles', but at Wildthorn, an asylum for the mentally insane. Believing her to be a Lucy Childs, she is admitted to the asylum and locked in despite putting up a fight. The more she insists she is Louisa Cosgrove, the more the attendants believe she is mad. Determined to find out who is behind her treachery, Louisa fights to never lose sight trying to get out. At every corner she discovers just how deeply the betrayal goes, and just how difficult it will be to escape her ill treatment. There is only one person at Wildthorn she trusts, the only person who may be her way to freedom.
This isn't an LGBTQ story in that Louisa's sexuality doesn't play a hugely important role. Ths focus is on her incarceration at Wildthorn, why she's there, and how she's ever going to get out. The treatement of the residents is atrocious. There are some attendants who are nice or those that don't really care and so will let the residents do as they wish, but there are others who are so vindictive, so cruel, and take great pleasure from it. It's just awful!
Set in 1876, there are quite a few views about the role of women and how they should be living their lives, and a lot of this is shown through Louisa's flashbacks. There were so many times when opinions of many of the men, and even some of the women too, in the book - that women should stay at home, raising babies and looking after their husbands - really wound me up. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against women who are stay-at-home mums/housewives - it's something I would like to do myself if I'm able - but we have the choice to either stay at home or work. It's the fact that they believed this is what women should do, this and only this, without choice, is what really annoyed me. Even more so what they thought of women who wanted more. Absolutely disgusting!
As I said, Louisa's sexuality isn't the focus of Wildthorn, and to some extent it's even secondary. However, Louisa does wonder if some of her previous actions before coming to Wildthorn are the reason for her being there. Did someone find out, and had her locked away because of it? There is no use of the word "lesbian" nor any other term/label to describe sexuality. In her guest post (linked above), Eagland explains that "the word ['lesbian'] wouldn’t have been used at the time the novel is set" and that "after some research, I discovered that at that time it was acceptable for girls to have passionate friendships, without necessarily having sexual feelings for one another - they would embrace and kiss and write and say extravagant things to each other." This was all perfectly normal, so Louisa's strong friendships were never seen to be thought badly of. However, romantic feelings for the same sex were considered abnormal, so it's something that Louisa kept secret, and was a major contender in her theories as to why she was at Wildthorn. The romance in the book is sweet, but slow to build. On the sexuality side of things, the main focus is Louisa discovering her sexuality and her feelings rather than an actual romance. The way things are wrapped up for Louisa in the romantic sense made me feel a little sad despite what happens. It's down to the times, but it just feels so unfair.
Overall, an intriguing story with twists I didn't expect! A great, quick read that will both enrage you and make you smile.
Published: 6th March 2009
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Buy on Amazon US
Jane Eagland's Website