On writing

The inspiration for an asylum set on the Yorkshire Moors

Anna Hope discusses the importance of location to her writing, and delves into the wild landscape that inspired Sharston, the asylum in her novel The Ballroom

 

The asylum in which The Ballroom takes place is called Sharston, but it is closely based on Menston Asylum, originally known as the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, situated at the eastern tip of Ilkley Moor. It is a part of the world I knew a little before I began to write; my dad was born in Ilkley and grew up in Keighley on the other side of the moor, and many of my extended family still live close to Bradford. I knew it from books too, from early readings of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Secret Garden and others.

I grew up not far away on the other side of the Pennines, in a small village on the Lancashire moors. Like the West Riding it is a landscape of beautiful countryside, but surrounded by towns which during my ’80s’ childhood were mired in post-industrial decline. As a child, the contrast between the seeming bleakness of many of these towns and the wild country that surrounded them was always very alive to me.

There was an old cotton mill submerged beneath the reservoir at the back of our house, and in times of drought or little rain the water would shrink to reveal the remains of its stone walls. It made a great impression on me, and the idea of confinement and escape, of working long, punishing hours in mills and factories and what that wild country beyond might represent, is a key theme of The Ballroom.
 


Both the real asylum and my fictional Sharston were almost self-sufficient, with six hundred acres of land, and many of the male patients working the farms as a sort of occupational therapy. It is through this contact with the land that my hero, John Mulligan, begins to emerge from the depression that has led to his incarceration, and return to himself. As the summer of 1911 grows ever more beautiful, his guilt that the female patients are locked up while he experiences relative liberty sparks his original impulse to write to Ella, with whom he begins to fall in love. So the relationship of language and landscape, and the importance of each as a path to liberation become very important to the novel.

At various points during the writing of The Ballroom I took myself off to walk on Ilkley Moor; it’s such a rich landscape, littered with sacred sites and boulders with ancient carvings, of which no one quite knows the meaning. It was important to me that this magical landscape was infused in the book; at a time when so many people had so many ideas about how to control others, (eugenics is a major theme) I loved the idea that there’s something unmanageable, wild, almost pagan, just waiting to break through the surface of all that civilisation.

I wanted this wild current to be an ever-growing presence in the book, touching all the characters in their own way. And this wildness is only heightened by the weather, which, as it grows hotter and hotter, and the asylum becomes a cauldron in which all sorts of desires rise to the surface and insist upon making themselves felt…

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