Casey reviews Wildthorn by Jane Eagland


A nineteenth-century insane asylum seems hardly an appropriate place for a teenage lesbian romance.  Jane Eagland, though, manages to make this both believable and exciting in her young adult novel, Wildthorn.  This historical tale is not just a romance, though that was my favourite part; in fact, a larger portion of the book is dedicated to interrogating some of the atrocious Victorian social attitudes to mental illness and gender non-conformity.  The “isn’t-it-horrible-what-they-did-to-women-back-in-the-day” is a bit heavy-handed and reductive at times, though; what bothers me mostly about this is the implication that nowadays women are ‘free’ from sexism.  Actually, what I found remarkable —and at the same time depressing, of course—is how certain sexist belief systems, like victim-blaming, are at work in this fictional Victorian universe and are still alive and well today, albeit in different forms.

So the novel deals with some pretty serious issues, and it’s not as light as you might imagine; or, at least as I imagined when I picked it up wanting a cute, melodramatic romantic thriller.  Louisa Cosgrove is from a middle-class English family and she’s, of course, exhibiting all the typical signs of baby dykedom: she wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and be a doctor; she has no interest in feminine pursuits like needlepoint and pointless social calls; she has very strong feelings for her older cousin Grace.  While her life is already in shambles following the death of her father, Louisa ends up being sent to Wildthorn asylum, and you’re left in suspense for most of the book as to how or why this happened.  Was it her jealous, underachieving brother who orchestrated this?  Has she been mistaken for someone else?

The novel is a bit of a slog in the middle section, where Louisa is trapped in the asylum; this is how Louisa feels, of course, so on the one hand Eagland is mirroring Louisa’s experience.  On the other, it gets a bit tiring, and depressing.  Once the romance picks up, though, the book gets pretty exciting; plus there’s the whole issue of how she is going to escape!

If you love Sarah Waters and have already plowed through all her books, I would recommend picking up Wildthorn.  It’s an obvious connection to make, but I really think Eagland nails the same kind of Victorian melodrama that Waters does, in the spirit of some of my favourite nineteenth century British writers.  I love how a lot of the chapters end with a dramatic cliff-hanger, such as “It’s all been in vain, I’m going to die…”. The dot, dot, dot, of course, is key.  Unlike Waters, though, because Wildthorn is a book for teens, you don’t get the fun racy sex scenes.  But it is a little more explicit than the original Brontës, so there’s that, and it might tide you over until Sarah Waters’s next book is out.

Also, if you want feminist historical young adult fiction set in Victorian England, I highly recommend Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle series, which has some paranormal/fantasy elements as well as an awesome lesbian character!

Guest Lesbrarian Shanna Shadoan reviews Wildthorn by Jane Eagland

I just read an awesome YA novel.  It’s set in Victorian England, and features a young woman who was committed to an asylum for “moral insanity”.  Basically, she wasn’t behaving in a properly feminine way.  She falls in love with one of the attendants there, so it is a sweet lesbian love story, which is pretty rare in the historical fiction genre!  Anyway, if you’d like to put up my review, here it is!
“‘I told you, that isn’t my name.  I am Louisa Cosgrove. And I’m not meant to be here.  There’s been a mistake.’

He pauses…then turns to read the page of cramped writing I can see inside the folder.

It suddenly occurs to me-perhaps they’re pretending they don’t know who I am. Perhaps they’re trying to drive me mad.

I take a deep breath. ‘I’m not mad, Doctor.  You can see that, so-’”

There’s been a terrible mistake. Instead of being driven to a manor where she was to begin her position as a companion, Louisa is taken to Wildthorn Hall, an asylum.  They call her Lucy and interpret her every protest as further evidence of her illness.  But who had her committed? More importantly, how can she get out? Does her family really believe she belongs here? Or worse, is it possible that they do not even know where she is?

Amidst the groans and suffering of her fellow patients, Louisa recalls her outside life.  True, perhaps she read more than was considered seemly for young women, and her ambition to become a doctor was certainly unconventional.  But moral insanity? Surely having dreams of something other than a husband and family does not amount to an illness!  In order to save her life and be united with her love, Louisa stages a risky escape attempt.  But on the outside, there are many dangers for a young woman, and it seems her troubles have just begun.

I did absolutely nothing today but finish this book; I got it yesterday night.  First, it’s about time we have some good queer historical fiction! Even better, this is a queer story that doesn’t revolve around a coming out. Louisa, from her childhood on, has preferred science to sewing and riding horses to making calls.  However, she is not committed to the asylum because she is a lesbian, rather, because she exhibits unfeminine characteristics and ambitions for her time.  In this way, the book is an interesting commentary on the restrictive expectations for women in nineteenth-century England.

For those of you looking for a love story, don’t worry.  It’s there, it is sweet, and it defies the bleakness of the novel’s setting.  For a young adult book that reads like the lovechild of The Well of Loneliness and Jane Eyre, the tender romance is refreshingly hopeful, but not wildly so.  It is not so perfectly constructed that it seems unrealistic, but it is a lovely surprise!  I’ve been waiting to read this book for a long time, and I couldn’t have ordered a more perfect compilation of everything I love in a read-for-pleasure book. I haven’t been this happy since I discoveredSarah Waters. Oh, and one more awesome thing-this novel is based on a true story (seriously. Isn’t that awful?  We should all be welling over with gratitude for our feminist predecessors, because now we don’t have to worry about being tossed in an asylum because we were inconveniently un-feminine.)

Happy Reading!

Anna K. reviews Wildthorn by Jane Eagland

With 19th-century British asylum scenes reminiscent of Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, Eagland’s YA novel, Wildthorn, is in turns suspenseful, sad, and romantic. Louisa Cosgrove is sent by her brother to the home of a wealthy family to be a companion for another young lady. But instead of a cushy manor, she finds herself left at Wildthorn Hall, an asylum for the insane, and is told that her name is not Louisa Cosgrove but Lucy Childs.

However, in childhood flashbacks portraying Louisa’s stuffy, well-mannered mother; kind, physician father; and indulgent aunt, readers begin to trust in the narrator’s sanity.

The majority of the book takes place in the asylum. Accurately reflecting Louisa’s suspension from real life and lack of connection to the outside world, these scenes can grow tiresome. Readers will be with Louisa throughout as she tries to figure out how she ended up in her current situation–betrayal, mistaken identity, or did someone find out about her “unnatural” attraction to her cousin Grace.

But it is Louisa’s love for another woman that provides a more significant arc in the novel. She develops a warm, slow, wholly natural love with a nurse at the asylum, and their sweet romance is easy to identify with.

As a young adult novel, the plot-centric nature of the book and its somewhat stereotypical tropes–a tomboyish girl in 19th-century Essex wants to be a doctor and rebels against social customs and her mother’s guidance–are to be expected. With a satisfying love story and a likable, smart protagonist, this is an enjoyable read for fans of YA.