BOOK REVIEW – Madwoman by Louisa Treger

Based on the true story of Nellie Bly, the first female investigative journalist, this incredible work of historical fiction is one that’s bound to stay with you long after you’ve turned the final page.

The story begins in the late 1800’s and we meet Elizabeth Cochran, fondly known as ‘Pink’, a determined, headstrong nine-year-old who endeavours to be the equal of her two older brothers in every way possible, much to the despair of her mother who does everything in her power to try and teach her to behave as a young lady should. Everyone knows that girls should grow up to be refined and genteel so that the right man will come along and marry them! But Pink isn’t having any of it! Thanks to her father, a judge, she gets a good education and he even allows her to help him with many of his cases, doing a bit of background investigation to check up on certain facts, which she’s surprisingly good at. With her father’s encouragement, she starts considering the possibility of studying law which she knows she’ll enjoy, and she’s excited about her future prospects.

But with her father’s tragic death, Pink’s dreams are shattered. She knows that without him as her champion she has no hope of going to study at university. And when her mother remarries someone who is an abusive scam artist, she knows that the responsibility lies with her to take control of her own life if she has any chance of independence. She’s intelligent and strong-willed, and knowing that the career path she’d been counting on is now closed to her, she’s well aware that she needs to find something else to do – and fast. She realises that this is the perfect opportunity to employ her excellent writing skills, and combining this with what she’s witnessed of her mother’s circumstances, and the many other women around her whose daily struggles she observes every day, she decides to try her hand at journalism.

She writes an article highlighting the plight of women in the workplace and sends it to The Dispatch, the local Pittsburgh newspaper. They print it, using the pseudonym ‘Nellie Bly’ and she continues to produce similar articles for them, all highlighting women’s rights which are being ignored by those in positions of influence. But after some time it seems that not everyone is pleased with these articles, and many of the paper’s advertisers threaten to withdraw their support if The Dispatch continues to publish these articles that highlight so much negativity in their businesses. And so Nellie finds herself unemployed.

Knowing that she’s good at what she does, and no longer able to find work locally, she decides to head to New York, assuming that it will surely be much easier to find a job there and that they will be far more open-minded towards women in the big city. She’s wrong on both counts. Getting more desperate by the day and having already been turned down by The New York World newspaper after begging them for work, she suddenly has the equivalent of what we’d now call ‘an aha moment!’ She recalls being told about the appalling conditions on Blackwell’s Island, an infamous mental asylum. It sparks an idea in her head that she’s positive cannot be turned down.

Once again she approaches The New York World and tells them that she is going to feign insanity to get herself admitted to the institution on Blackwell’s Island, thereby being able to reliably report back on the conditions endured by the patients and their treatment by the notoriously sadistic staff. The bosses are not convinced she can pull off what sounds like a far-fetched feat, but they agree to allow her to attempt it, not believing for a minute that she’ll be able to. Her only condition is that they will somehow send someone in after a week to get her out, and they say that they’ll find a way to do this.

And so begins Nellie Bly’s journey into the depths of a hell she never imagined could have existed. As the doors slam shut, the words “nobody ever leaves here” echo in her ears, and she wonders if she hasn’t made a terrible mistake. By now she is no longer the naive child she once was, but she’s astonished at the brutality and criminal behavior of the so-called staff who are employed to ‘care’ for the asylum inmates. Most do not even have any type of vocational or nursing training and the doctors themselves either don’t care or at a loss as to what to do about anything that goes on, so it’s easier to turn their backs and claim ignorance.

As Nellie quickly feels herself forgetting what life outside the walls of Blackwell’s was like, she is increasingly horrified at the inhumane conditions there. As she attempts to accumulate material for her article and gets to know her fellow inmates, she realises that the definition of ‘insanity’ seems to be a rather loose one, resting on whatever happens to be deemed convenient for whoever has manipulated the truth to get these women here, and out of the way. The more she witnesses, the more she understands that these women are driven to insanity after they enter this horrific place. It’s easy to lose your grip on reality in a place like this, and even easier to forget who you really are, and your true purpose for being there in the first place. You could even, actually, go insane.

This is a riveting, outstanding read, if an uncomfortable one. The detailed accounts of events that Nellie witnesses during her time on Blackwell’s Island are shockingly disturbing, and not something that readers will forget in a hurry. Louisa Treger has done a sterling job of creating a dark and ominous atmosphere that draws you in. I almost felt a dense black cloud descending on me as I went through Nellie’s ordeal with her.

This was a turning point in the way mental health treatment was approached by the New York City Department of Public Charities and Corrections. Changes included increased funds being appropriated to care for mentally ill patients and stronger supervision for the supervision of nurses and healthcare workers. But reading about the women whose stories Nellie endeavoured to tell, one cannot help but despair for all of those that came before who suffered unimaginable torture and distress at the hands of brutal and barbaric wardens.

Nellie is a wonderful character. She’s understanding, wise beyond her years, full of compassion and empathy for those who encounter situations that many like her couldn’t even begin to understand. She’s a true champion for the underdog, and goes out of her way to seek out those who need her help. By introducing us to Nellie (Elizabeth/Pink) at a young age, the author ensures that we get to know her and get a genuine sense of who she is and what motivates her and her actions. This is much better than just meeting her when she’s already an adult, and not having all that in-depth background knowledge. Taking the time to go into all of this detail, and to fully round out her character sets the tone from the start for a story that ticks every single box for a meticulously researched, fact-based historical novel that really is a 5-star must-read.

Thank you to Jonathan Ball Publishers for my review copy.

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