Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Book Review: The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls by Emilie Autumn

I hadn't really anticipated this book being the sort of thing I'd review on here. You know, it didn't really register in my mind as a book book, as opposed to another piece of merchandise for me to lust after and spend ridiculous amounts of money on. So, really, it stands testiment to the quality of TAWVG that its on here, although that sounds stuck up.

A little about the author - Emilie Autumn is a classically trained musician who has turned her hand to creating neo-Victorian, sugar-Goth mayhem with a violin, a harpsichord and a collection of exotically dressed dancers. You can learn more about her at her website here. Her music and aesthetic take their cues from the Victorian Era, Shakespeare, folklore and fairytales, the pre-Raphealite paintings of Ophelia, and the historical connection between femininity and madness. Emilie's most recent album, Opheliac, drew upon both Emilie's research into Victorian methods concerning 'mad girls', and Emilie's own experience in a mental institution. The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls extends the world of Opheliac, providing both an explanation for the album and a brilliant insight into life in a mental institution.

I am usually quite cautious of books written by people who are not primarily authors by trade. Thus, I did approach TAWVG with some caution. It could be interesting, I thought, but I didn't hope for something that was really well written. In that aspect, I was pleasantly surprised - the book did, in fact, read much better than a lot of books by actual authors (cough, Mr Darcy, Vampyre) and was filled with wonderful, expressive prose which lived up to Emilie's reputation as both a) a wonderful poet and lyricist, and b) much more intelligent than most people give her credit for.

The 'autobiographical novel' begins with Emilie being admitted to a modern mental institution after a failed suicide attempt. Bewildered and unsettled by her surroundings, Emilie finds solace in the notes that begin mysteriously appearing between the pages of her notebook, all written by 'Emily with a y', an 1851 inmate of The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls. In this way, Emilie Autumn successfully draws parellels between modern treatment for females with mental illness and the treatments of the Victorian Era, claiming that, when it comes down to basics, nothing much has changed.

The language of the book helped create a world - one could see the interiors of both institutions, see the seperate personalities of Emilie and 'Emily with a y', and understand the emotions felt by both girls. Emilie managed to adopt a Victorian-feel writing voice with ease, while still maintaining a modern feel for the modern passages. The structure of the book - confused and scattered, made up of diary entries, streams of conciousness, random facts, drawings and photographs - while sometimes confusing for the reader, helped to heighten the strangeness of the book.

Historical accuracy is also often a concern with books such as these, but there wasn't anything to complain about on that front. I don't know how much of the book was actually researched, and how much of it was made up of Emilie's considerable store of historical knowledge, but either way, it worked.

The plot held up well, despite the confused structure of the book. Revealing, stark, and in some parts gory, the book perhaps told readers even more than they wanted to know. But, first and foremost, the book was created by Emilie Autumn to tell the truth, however ugly, and overall, the book has not suffered for it.

The book wasn't quite perfect - there was the occasional spelling mistake/typo/odd jump between pages, as though a few sentences had been missed out. Somehow these mistakes - if they were mistakes at all - effectively heightened the warped feel of the book, increasing the 'mad' feel. Additionally, one felt that as the book progressed, occasionally 'Emily with a y''s voice would slip, and a phrase that was distinctly modern sounding would get through. Having now finished the book, I can say with the benefit of hindsight that maybe this too was on purpose, as a continuation of the plot.

One thing that did irk me a little bit was the sheer size of the book - seriously, its a fucking coffee-table tome. Have you ever tried to read one of those in bed? Its uncomfortable! However, the beautiful layout of the book would have had to have been forfeited, had the book been any smaller. So I guess I can cope with only reading while sitting upright.

The fans of Emilie Autumn - commonly referred to as muffins, don't ask me why - have been waiting for this book for years. When word came that it was finally on its way to us, a lot of the muffins dreamed big - there was talk of best seller lists, of feature films, of spreading the plague, one book purchase at a time. I, for one, didn't get involved with such things, assuming that the only people who would be interested in reading Emilie Autumn's book would be fans of Emilie Autumn. Having finished the book now, I have changed my mind. This book is more than just a 'behind the scenes' for Opheliac. It is a recount of life inside a mental institution deserving of a place on a bookshelf next to The Bell Jar, Girl Interrupted and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It could be read by anyone. In fact, it should. It should be read by anyone fascinated by the Victorian Era, anyone who has ever had a brush with the mental health industry, and anyone who has ever been talked down to because of their gender.

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