The latest novel is inspiration for art.
Novels offer lots of potential ideas for art. However, I have only once before written about a novel I was reading for this blog.
Of course, some novels have such an impact on me that I can’t stop thinking about the fate of the characters.
Recently, I started reading The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace, and like most really good reads, I am savouring each page like a tender morsel of the creamiest, most luxurious chocolate.
The Painted Bridge allows the reader a peek at 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
Far too many women would have been left in an asylum for conditions such as postpartum depression, or anxiety, or suicide attempts. For example, I read about a woman sent to the asylum because of overwork. Could she have had OCD?
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 by loved ones for months and even years?
Fictional characters in monochromatic sketches
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
Which novels have left an indelible impression on you? What fictional characters are not easily forgotten?
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