Wildthorn by Jane Eagland
Wildthorn has been on my reading list for a while; given my love for Sarah Waters’ “Victorian Women in Love” trilogy (not, obviously, the loose trilogy’s actual title), seeking out more titles about queer women in Victorian England is just natural. So when I discovered that there was a young adult title that covered similar ground, I was quite pleased. I’ve actually rented this book before and simply not gotten around to it; luckily, it’s at my local library, rather than needing to be requested, so that’s a definite help. So, needing something quick before Thanksgiving, I finally managed to read the thing.
Wildthorn opens with Louisa Cosgrove being delivered to Wildthorn Hall, an asylum. There, they strip her of her clothes and her name, insisting that she is called Lucy Childs and that Louisa Cosgrove never existed. While initially convinced of her identity and sanity, Louisa soon begins to question herself, as she falls into the routine of the asylum and strikes up a friendship with Eliza, an orderly. But Louisa persists in trying to discover who locked her away and why, even as she begins to have more than friendly feelings towards Eliza…
There is a problem, nay, a plague, affecting young adult historical fiction with female protagonists. I saw it in A Great and Terrible Beauty; I saw it in Ophelia. The plague? These heroines, despite their own historical contexts, are miraculously third-wave feminists. As I said in my review of Ophelia, “Seeing historical characters with extremely modern ideas about gender, race, or anything else makes my skin crawl; it speaks to sloppy research and a desire to clean up history instead of making us like a heroine who doesn’t think like us.” Louisa sharply rejects traditional femininity (in such a way that heavily implies that no one could ever possibly be happy as a homemaker) and yearns to be a doctor, as encouraged by her doctor father. Fair enough; while no date is given, Wildthorn is concurrent with the first blossoming of first-wave feminism, and I could definitely see a novel where a girl raised in a progressive family gets a rude awakening when she discovers the rest of the world. But Louisa’s mother and the rest of her family constantly try to socialize her as a traditional Victorian lady, and none of that apparently sinks in. Ever. She never feels conflicted about the fact she doesn’t want to marry or wants to be a doctor, looks down on other women who do want to marry and raise families, and takes every slight aimed against her as an attack on her because she’s a woman. I mean, it is Victorian London, so yes, but Louisa comes off as unpleasantly hypersensitive.
And all of this is flattened further by the fact that Louisa’s direct oppressors—the people who betrayed her and sent her to Wildthorn—don’t really have any good reasons to do so beyond their position in society (and a painfully underdeveloped addiction). What’s particularly horrifying about the medical treatment of women in the Victorian age is that the male doctors honestly thought they were doing it for the good of the women, if they thought of them at all; the first case of artificial insemination occurred without ever telling the woman she wasn’t carrying her husband’s child, because they thought it was none of her business. Comparing the laughably thin motivation for locking Louisa away with the actually harrowing story of Beatrice, a fellow inmate, makes the former just feel flippant. The way Eagland treats the oppression of women in this novel just feels too pat, as if these problems are all in the past, instead of still affecting us today.
The queerness of the novel is just as poorly developed and thought out. Louisa discovers that she’s gay when she falls in love with a cousin, somehow managing to navigate the “is this love or nerve damage”, the “girls can like other girls?”, and the “I LIKE OTHER GIRLS” obstacles in the space of a single hour, which is quite impressive for a Victorian teenager. Later, however, we’re told that Louisa believes her feelings are wrong, which is the first we hear of her having mixed feelings about being gay. And the romance is not particularly developed; true, Louisa and her paramour have a moment while dancing, but it takes the other girl confessing for Louisa to realize she has any wibbly feelings towards her. (Oh, and of course, Louisa immediately dismisses her previous love for her cousin as “a dream”, because, as we all know, you ought to end up with your first “real” love.) So I’m really torn here; on the one hand, lesbian representation in young adult fiction is lagging behind gay representation, as Cass pointed out to me recently, so I’m pleased Wildthorn exists. But it’s just not particularly good.
Bottom line: While lesbian representation in young adult fiction is always something to cheer about, Wildthorn just isn’t very good, with its too-modern protagonist, laughably thin motivation for her antagonists, and poorly developed romance. Avoid.
I rented this book from the public library.