The latest novel is inspiration for art.

Novels offer lots of potential ideas for art. However, I have only once before written a post about a novel I was reading.

Maybe you are thinking right now about a novel you read, perhaps not so long ago, in which one or more characters remained in your thoughts. Those are the books, and there are not that many, that I keep and read over and over again.

(This post was first published on June 15, 2018.)

Recently, I have been enjoying The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace, and like most really good reads, I savour each page like a tender morsel of the creamiest, most luxurious silky chocolate.

The Painted Bridge invites the reader into the Victorian era when men ruled over women and women were disposable commodities.

Wendy Wallace writes the untold story of the women who were abandoned in insane asylums in mid-19th century England.

You will find excellent material related to the novel here.

The Painted Bridge did inspire me to sketch some of the women that I imagined might have been confined to an asylum.

Novel ideas for art: the forgotten women of the asylums

After I read The Painted Bridge, I wanted to find out the truth about women in the Victorian Era and of course, the teacher in me required more research on this topic. Far too many women were left in asylums for conditions ranging from postpartum depression, or anxiety, to suicide attempts. For example, I read about a woman sent to the asylum because of overwork. Could she have had OCD? Or was her family just trying to get rid of her?

Photographers took photos of the “patients” in the name of science. It was thought that the photo captured the depth of unhappiness which could be measured by their facial expression in the photograph.

I found vintage photographs on Pinterest  (To Draw - VIntage board) and sketched and imagined stories for each woman I painted from the photographs.

I chose blue again because the colour is appropriate for women who spent a good part of their lives behind the walls of the asylum.

Wouldn't you feel blue if you were forgotten or abandoned by loved ones for months and even years?

Fictional characters in monochromatic sketches

monochromatic sketch: Adele
Monochromatic sketch: Adele


Case #325

Adèle’s husband abandoned her at the asylum shortly after the birth of their first child.

Adèle, 15 years old, was alone to care for Tommy, a colicky baby. Already of a delicate nature, Adèle had lost a lot of blood during childbirth.

According to her husband, Adèle’s weakness and inability to do the most mundane of chores as well as her incessant crying led him to believe that his young wife was suffering some type of insanity.

Within a few days of leaving his wife, Adèle’s husband had moved in with the widow down the street.

Case #21

Elizabeth or “Beth” arrived at the asylum suffering from "hysteria".

If truth be told, Mr. Blake, Beth's father, did not fancy the young man who had come calling on several occasions for his 17 year old daughter.

Having no chaperone in the house, Mr. Blake himself was far too busy to oversee the propriety of the couple's blossoming relationship.

You see, Mr. Blake liked to visit the local whorehouses in the evening, and Beth’ s new love interest was preventing him from enjoying his own distractions.

One evening, he whisked Beth away to the county asylum before her suitor came calling.

Beth spent the first two years in distress. She had nightmares and was prone to crying for no obvious reason.  Mr. Blake never returned for Beth.

A photographer captured her image in 1860, just before her suicide.

Monochromatic sketch: Elizabeth
Monochromatic sketch: Elizabeth
Case #460

Considered a spinster at 26, Cordelia Gardner, an inn-keeper’s daughter, has a story that is not unusual for women of her era.

Cordelia was proud of the freshly scrubbed rooms, and the menial daily chores that had become her lot since the age of six. For a time, that is.

As the years went by, and particularly after her twentieth birthday, Cordelia became more interested in books than in cleaning and scrubbing. The town’s librarian encouraged her thirst for knowledge by bringing her newly acquired books.

Cordelia, had big dreams. She wanted more than anything to be a schoolmistress.

Monochromatic sketch: Cordelia
Cordelia, with one of her books. Monochromatic sketch.

Gradually, as the days became months, and the months became years, Cordelia lost the spark that had been ignited by books, and by her friendship with the librarian, but most of all, by her hopes for her own future.

The inn, much like Cordelia, had a tired, unkept look. One by one, its patrons went elsewhere.

Mr. Gardner sought the advice of a man who had visited the inn one afternoon: the asylum proprietor.

Convinced that his daughter was suffering a type of melancholia, Mr. Gardner hired a new housekeeper for his inn, and promptly escorted Cordelia to the asylum for treatment.

Case # 196

Abigail was admitted to the asylum after family members discovered knife marks on her arms and legs. Her brother told the asylum proprietor that Abigail suffered anxiety when she found out that her fiancé was secretly seeing her more outgoing, older sister.

She was given a course of bizarre treatments during her stay at the asylum including cold showers, applications of leeches to the temples, and toxic chemicals such as mercury.

monochromatic sketch: Abigail
Abigail - monochromatic sketch

Abigail retreated into her own little world and could be seen talking to herself while rocking back and forth. Even though the treatments made matters worse, after almost a year in the asylum, Abigail was declared well enough to return to her family.

Excerpt from the novel

Because these Victorian asylums were run for profit, and staff was untrained in medical issues, treatments varied from one institution to another, and from one case to another. In the novel, the main character, Anna, is at the mercy of a vengeful assistant, Makepeace.

Fiction hasn't strayed far from the truth as women experienced the most brutal treatments in so many cases.


“Her scalp, readied by shaving, was first blistered with hot irons. Later, it was frozen with crushed ice that had been packed in an India rubber cap. Anna saw herself as if from above, as if she floated over the woman she had been. She saw her own familiar body dressed in a calico nightdress trapped to a chair in the treatment room. Saw Makepeace, pushing the ice down hard on her head, breathing heavily." (209)

Among other treatments, Anna is subjected to leeches “applied to her private places by Dr. Higgins.” (209)

Here are a select few more novels that I have loved and will not part with:

Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Losing Julia by Jonathan Hull

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Any novel by Jennifer Robson

Certainly, there are more novels on my list, these are the novels that come to mind this morning, over my first cup of coffee.

How about you?

Which novels have left an indelible impression on you?

Which fictional characters have stayed with you over time? Why? 




6 Responses

  • I absolute loved Pillars of the Earth and one of the books I’ve kept. But I read it decades ago that I don’t remember much about it.
    I also have kept the Autobiography of a Yogi.

    • Hazel, I reread Pillars twice and enjoyed it each time. However, there are other novels that I couldn’t read again and those are the ones that I figure I have outgrown. There are some novels that are just meant to be enjoyed more than once!

  • It happened to my husbands Grandmother, she came with her husband and daughters to live in Australia and when they arrived stayed with her cousin and her husband, unfortunately the husband raped my husbands Grandmother which caused her to have a mental breakdown, she was instituted for the rest of her life. A secret held for many years, and reading the medical reports, such a sad sad story.

    • I think if we looked into our past, we would find many similar stories of abuse towards women.

      Unfortunately, such abuse still happens. Now, there are more ways that women can seek help and support rather than feel they must remain in the abusive situation. Thank you for sharing, Sally.

  • So terrible this has happened to women. I believe most metal illnesses we will eventually find out are physically induced by something we have yet to understand. I dont read a lot but I remember one book not the title just what it was about. The woman married a man who only wanted male children. Girls would be murdered and boys were held dear. After she gave him all the boys he wanted he had her killed. I remember it well as I gave birth to only males children, and my in laws dont accept me fully after 30 yrs of marriage. It still is a patriarchal society world really.

    • Change takes time. We must remember that we are role models for our children and that the lessons the young learn from watching us (and others in the family) will be passed onto the next generation. Change starts in our own households.

      Thanks for reading my post, Susan, and for leaving a comment.

I’d love to hear what you have to say...