The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood
Susan Hill meets Wilkie Collins in Alison Littlewood’s latest chiller. Mad-doctor Nathaniel is obsessed with the beautiful Mrs Harleston – but is she truly delusional? Or is she hiding secrets that should never be uncovered . . . ?
Haunted by his father’s suicide, Nathaniel Kerner walks away from the highly prestigious life of a consultant to become a mad-doctor. He takes up a position at Crakethorne Asylum, but the proprietor is more interested in phrenology and his growing collection of skulls than the patients’ minds. Nathaniel’s only interesting case is Mrs Victoria Adelina – Vita – Harleston: her husband accuses her of hysteria and delusions – but she accuses him of hiding secrets far more terrible.
Nathaniel is increasingly obsessed with Vita, but when he has her mesmerised, there are unexpected results. Vita starts hearing voices, the way she used to – her grandmother always claimed they came from beyond the grave – but it also unleashes her own powers of mesmerism . . . and a desperate need to escape.
Increasingly besotted, Nathaniel finds himself caught up in a world of séances and stage mesmerism in his bid to find Vita and save her.
But constantly hanging over him is this warning: that doctors are apt to catch the diseases with which they are surrounded – whether of the body or the mind . . .
Welcome to Crakethorne Asylum…………
Set in 1856, this novel offers a literary insight into the world of asylums. It details the ‘inmates’, doctors and a growing relationship between one doctor and his patient, the illusive Mrs Victoria Adelina Harleston.
Crakethorne Asylum is perfectly described, and you feel immersed inside its crumbling walls. Set in northern England, West Riding, Yorkshire. The author has done an outstanding job of portraying the opinions and attitudes held by many in the era.
“The north, despite its bluff inhabitants, austere weather and desolate landscapes, has indeed rather favoured the mad”
Dr Nathaniel Kerner is a new ‘mad doctor’ in post. He has an interesting backstory and is determined to absolve some inner guilt by creating a family legacy. Nathaniel/Nate is idealistic in his approaches and has felt inspired by the nearby York Retreat. He hopes to radicalise mental health. To do away with the notion that Bedlam Asylum has created, that all those considered ‘mad’ are lost causes with no hope of saviour.
He begins his post under the watchful eye of Dr Algernon Chettle. The Asylum houses 39 ‘inmates’ of various conditions. From epilepsy, to female hysteria and a child patient whom believes he is a dog!
“All physicians face the risk of succumbing to the diseases they battle” Dr Chettle
“Guard your mind – or you may discover one day it is entirely lost, and you may not find it again!” Dr Chettle
Mrs Harleston arrives with her husband, she has an interesting backstory and you become fascinated with her plight. Is she mentally ill? Is she manipulating the inexperienced Dr Kerner? Why is her husband so abrupt and callous towards the staff?
Mrs Harleston forms question after question, in the readers mind. But not just the reader, Dr Kerner’s fascination is also growing day by day………….
The novel details the workings of the asylum. The class structure, treatments available and meagre privileges afforded to the mentally ill. The other ‘inmates’ lives are detailed, almost as if you are reading their patient files. The chapters themselves include patients note/observations and entries from the doctor’s journals.
Which makes for brilliant reading!
Dr Chettle is obsessed with the physiology study. A study which believes a person’s afflictions can be predicted from their skull etc. A bizarre study but reflective of the era.
Dr kerner becomes convinced that talking therapy would work best with Mrs Harleston. That simply breaking down the walls of her defence, will provide a solution or cure to her current crisis.
As their conversations develop, I began to wonder, who is teaching who?
“How much of a woman’s life, do you think is spent being buried alive?” – Mrs harleston
Various therapies are explored with Mrs Harleston and each give an insight into her psyche. Her childhood, marriage and outlook on life are all fully explored. Other characters are slowly introduced into the story, they provided added deception, scandal and lies. I was glued to the page.
Then suddenly one dark evening, Mrs Harleston disappears………..
Who is the threat to Mrs Harleston? Or is she a danger to herself? Can Dr Kerner find her and return her to the asylum? Where/who would a woman with the odds stacked against her run to?
“The weight of society and authority was all on his side, what proof could I offer” Mrs Harleston
A fantastic historical fiction novel, offering an insight into mental health in the Victorian era. I think the ending is one for much discussion, but may leave some readers baffled.
I would be delighted to read more by this author!
Alison Littlewood was raised in Penistone, South Yorkshire, and went on to attend the University of Northumbria at Newcastle (now Northumbria University). Originally she planned to study graphic design, but “missed the words too much” and switched to a joint English and History degree. She followed a career in marketing before developing her love of writing fiction.
Alison Littlewood’s latest novel is The Crow Garden, a tale of obsession set amidst Victorian asylums and séance rooms. It follows The Hidden People, a Victorian tale about the murder of a young girl suspected of being a fairy changeling. Alison’s other novels include A Cold Silence, Path of Needles, The Unquiet House and Zombie Apocalypse! Acapulcalypse Now. Her first book, A Cold Season, was selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club and described as ‘perfect reading for a dark winter’s night.’
Alison’s short stories have been picked for Best British Horror, The Best Horror of the Year, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror and The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror anthologies, as well as The Best British Fantasy and The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime. They have been gathered together in her collections Quieter Paths and in Five Feathered Tales, a collaboration with award-winning illustrator Daniele Serra. She won the 2014 Shirley Jackson Award for Short Fiction.
Alison lives with her partner Fergus in deepest Yorkshire, England, in a house of creaking doors and crooked walls. She loves exploring the hills and dales with her two hugely enthusiastic Dalmatians and has a penchant for books on folklore and weird history, Earl Grey tea and semicolons.
Available now in Ebook and hardback.