Book of the Month Club: The Girl Who Couldn’t Read by John Harding

…on one occasion as I walked through the room I was stopped dead in my tracks when a lone voice rang out the words of ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ clear as a bell on a bright, frosty morning. It caught you like a first plunged into your chest and throttling your heart. It choked off your breath and made tears spring to your eyes. I was helpless while it continued. It seemed to sum up every hope in the world, and in that lay the pity of it, that someone could give pour forth such optimism while imprisoned there.

It starts out innocently enough: the protagonist’s ill-fitting clothes and extreme nervousness might be considered normal for a doctor arriving at a new mental institution. But a few pages later, when the institution’s owner, Dr. Morgan, questions his age and his views, it becomes clear that things are not as they seem. Our protagonist calls himself Dr. John Shepherd, but who is he, really? And when Shepherd is given a patient of his own, Jane Dove, who the medics claim has amnesia, to treat according to the theory of Moral Treatment (i.e. actually treating a patient like a human being, with care and kindness), how will his experiment turn out?

“Shepherd” is an interesting character: his adopted name serves the surface of his character well. A supposed proponent of Moral Treatment, he serves as a witness to the brutal “therapy” of the women inside the institution, and his frustrations with the medical administration, the owner and the head “nurse” in particular, would be very much like the opinions of the modern person today who would witness these medical professionals torture people in such ways. The medical professionals all find Shepherd’s views quite curious, as they believe that once a patient is in the institution, they are there for life, and cannot possibly be taught obedience unless they are cruelly punished. (For those interested in how Victorian era doctors would see and treat their patients, as well as stories of people who were in mental institutions, Harding provides a preliminary bibliography at the end of the book. Always a good thing.) Yet how could the protagonist have mercy on such innocents, when the protagonist has his sadistic secrets as well? The big one, of course, is his true identity and what he did. And when a letter arrives from the real Shepherd’s fiancée, saying that she will come to the institution unless he answers her, things start to unravel. Quickly.

This book is intended both as a companion novel and a stand-alone novel. I often find that these types of dual-duty books don’t work. In this case, it is a companion novel to Harding’s earlier New England Gothic novel, Florence and Giles, another excellent, but shorter, book. As someone with previous knowledge of Harding’s book, I would think that this book as a stand-alone novel would feel emptier. Certain parts and events are retold in this book, but its companion novel makes the information given richer in background and in layers (of truth, naturally).

The book is both captivating in its characters and harrowing in its depiction of the treatment of mental illness at the turn of the century. Recommended, but read Florence and Giles first.

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