The Madness of Miss Grey
When we first meet our hero and heroine, there is a distinct power imbalance between them. Miss Helen Grey, the titular heroine, is a patient at Blackwell, an old manor home converted to an asylum for ‘insane’ women of the late 19th century in Yorkshire, England. William Carter, our hero, is her doctor. The Madness of Miss Grey is part historical treatise on the treatment of women whose lives fall on the outside of social mores and part arranged marriage romance. It is at its strongest when dealing with the former, but the latter is worth your time as well.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
To explain why Helen is at Blackwell is a fairly significant spoiler, and so forgive me for some subtle obfuscation here. Why it is claimed she is at Blackwell is nymphomania (seriously) and hysteria (of course) and she is under the direct care of Dr. Sterling, who is a renowned voice in the field. We learn quickly, however, that he shouldn’t be.
Dr. William Carter is the son of the housekeeper of the house from before it was a hospital – a fact that is held over his head on several occasions by other characters. The villains in this tale are Victorian moralizers of the breed that threaten fire and brimstone for any and all sins – from promiscuity to poverty. Our Will, however, has two things going for him: he is both a good man and a smart one.
He fairly soon susses out that there is actually nothing wrong with Helen beyond depressive tendencies due to being held captive against her will and suffering from a particularly abusive nurse. Once he gives her some opportunities to display her personality and take control of her own surroundings, he sees sparks of life which her file claims have been extinguished. The bulk of the story is the process of Will discovering the true depths of manipulation and abuse present at the ‘hospital’ and figuring out a way to get Helen out of it. Oh, and there is the bit where he falls in love with her. Obviously.
Helen was raised by a single mother who was employed as an actress – shorthand for a trollop raised by a trollop as far as the hospital admin is concerned – and learned long ago that life is simply a series of tiny plays. If she can control the script, she can control her life. When we meet Helen she has two failed escape attempts behind her and immediately eyes Will up as the source for her third. His kindness and drive to treat her with both basic human dignity and love undoes many of her defenses and she finds herself loving him as well.
Like I said at the beginning, the story is strongest during the places where it’s dealing with the realities of Helen’s life and the various diagnoses and treatments given to women who weren’t married Anglo-Saxon Protestants in England at this time. I’m confident that nearly every patriarchal country had its own version of this – that women who didn’t toe the culturally normative line were diagnosed as ‘hysterical’ and that any woman who claimed to enjoy sexual intercourse was to be feared as the downfall of civilization. (I may have some strong feelings about those opinions.)
Where I loved it a bit less was the romance. While Bennett dealt deftly with the power imbalance through the use of both vulnerable confessions and a focus on consent, the moments from ‘well, I can use him to plot my escape and then never see him again’ to ‘he is my one true love’ felt a little rushed and angsty for my particular tastes. However, it was honestly just a few shades too quick and does not put me off recommending this work to any historical romance fan.
Overall, The Madness of Miss Grey is a unique work in our current Romancelandia landscape and one I think should be given attention.