Louisa Cosgrove is on her way to be a companion to the eldest daughter of the Woodville family. Instead she is brought to Wildthorn Hall, an asylum for the mentally insane. Immediately stripped of all her belongings, she is addressed only as Lucy Childs. There must be some mistake. She’s Louisa, not Lucy! She’s expected at the Woodvilles. Someone must straighten this out. No explanation, no recourse, no hope of freedom, Louisa is left to fend for her self and figure out how and why she is trapped in this nightmare.
The daughter of a doctor, Louisa grew up being encouraged to learn and dream. She wasn’t like other Victorian young ladies. Her aspirations are wider than marriage and motherhood. Louisa longs to be a doctor, like her father. When he suddenly dies, Louisa’s world begins to unravel. Gone are her hopes for the future she wants. Her brother, squandering his opportunities, scoffs at her. Her mother and aunt suggest she accepts her fate as a lady, and ladies are not doctors!
Fast forward and we are with Louisa as she encounters firsthand the horrors of a Victorian lunatic asylum. The doctors here are nothing like her kind, compassionate father. Monstrous treatments and bestial living conditions are endured by those kept at Wildthorn Hall. Louisa’s only glimmer of light in her darkened existence is Eliza, one of the workers. With her assistance, Louisa will unearth the truth of who she is and who is responsible for her incarceration.
Eagland exposes the reader to the true atrocities that were perpetrated in the name of science and medicine. We are with Louisa as she is stripped naked and bound in a bathtub of cold water. Our minds linger over the horrors she witnesses and endures. And gnawing at the back of our consciousness is that little seed of doubt. Who is Louisa …or is it Lucy?
Wildthorn is an exquisitely crafted thriller that delves deeply into the harsh reality of a Victorian woman who didn’t want to conform to the social norms of the time. Imagine your only path one of wife and mother. No education, no career. And if your husband or family thinks you’re not behaving appropriately, off you go to the asylum! I think the sentence that encapsulates the feelings that permeated the time is, “Excessive study, especially in one of the fair sex, often leads to insanity.”