Book Review – The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls by Emilie Autumn

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Horror / Historical Fiction
Publication Date: June 22nd, 2017
Publisher: The Asylum Emporium

“I shall devote what is left of my life to making my prison my palace. Just think of it, ladies: an asylum, by definition, ought to be a sanctuary for those who need one, and I fear I shall always need one.”

Not even the devil could envy the madwoman.
The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls juxtaposes Autumn’s personal experiences in a modern mental hospital with the dark magic realism of a fictional womens’ asylum in the mid-1800s, told by an alternate Emily “with a Y”. Emilie and Emily begin to communicate through journals and letters, and find that though the façade of their fate has changed, underneath it… nothing’s gotten better.
A point needed to be made about mental healthcare for women, though it’s one that jitters the nerves of the stomach to think about too much. I believe Autumn’s succeeded, and for that you should read it.

For awhile, I was obsessed with Emilie Autumn’s music. I mean totally engrossed in dark cabaret – finding her album “Opheliac” had a massive impact on what I desired to create in life. I still love her music and I recommend that album especially.
I had heard about The Asylum and craved it desperately. It needed to become a part of my permanent cerebral library by any means necessary, but at the time it was rarer than unicorn blood and about as expensive.

By the time I’d found one of these elusive collectibles and was able to borrow one, I’d rather worn myself out on Autumn’s discography, so I think that combined with the sheer unavailability of the thing had a bad impact and I didn’t like it much. The new version, which is thankfully quite easy to find, is a thousand times improved. In a way it comes across a twisted reversal of A Little Princess, with themes of isolation and friendship in hard times.

The Asylum has a romanticism in its grace, but it doesn’t doll up its message. It is too horrible to be beautiful, and too morbid to go untold. The satirical edge is brutal as well, and Autumn’s social wit is as biting and dark as her lyrical wit.

Emily “with a Y”s tragedy of being schooled and taught great talents only to be held at the mercy of them by abusive masters, and eventually condemned to an asylum, mirrors the reality of many, many, many girls, women and disabled persons throughout time. It can skirt the suspension of disbelief (Emily’s waking hysterectomy scene stands out – no one would survive that, much less stay sober through the whole violence) but what it says is important.
Women in particular have always been exposed to a psychological and physical depth of horror, yet there is always that sickening audacity society has to blame them for it if they crack under the weight of it. Society’s treatment of women was born rotten and from it sprouts rotten fruit.

“It is true that many of the girls here have loosened the reins upon their wits, some having been born disturbed, yet most having become so through years of suffering, caught in that vain struggle to survive a harsh and unjust society that grants them few of the rights given to men, and even less of the respect. Despite our differences in class, station and relative degree of sanity, most of us are united by the fact that we do not belong here.”

The memoir half is at least partly embellished. Emilie is pretty up-front about that, but it’s not unbelievable either and I can understand changing things. Modern mental institutions still are bleak and badly maintained in general, and this nature does draw their fair share of sadists, though I feel like nowadays they substitute yesterday’s violence for lazy incompetence.
Understanding of mental illness, even in places that are supposed to specialize in it, tends to well… just not exist. You can say goodbye to empathy. This is evident in that mentally ill people are continually amongst the most at-risk for abuse. We need books that show this underbelly for how filthy and wrong it’s always been. Maybe it’ll start to change in like three or four centuries.

As it’s fictional, the antagonists of Emily’s story can be two-dimensional. The mad doctor in particular is confusing – is he just torturing them for fun? But then, he’s neutral about others’ pain, so he can’t be a sadist exactly. What’s up with him and his mother? The doctor’s mother, Madam Mournington, has a little more depth. I find the Victorian girls to be super-endearing, as do I their bitter theatre of life unwanted.

“I was ashamed to have a disease that nobody could see, but now, I had proof. I had visible symptoms, and I wouldn’t have to explain myself anymore. I soon learned that I would spend my life defending myself instead.”

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