STOLEN SUMMERS – (A Novella)
All she has left is her sanity. Will the asylum take that from her too?
Away from her desk, Anne guides book-loving walkers through the Derbyshire landscape that inspired Charlotte Brontë’s, Jane Eyre.
“Not all the nuns were cruel. Some of the younger ones would address the girls kindly if Mother Superior were out of earshot. So, Matilda counted her blessings when Sister Bernadette slipped onto the seat beside her in the taxicab, while a sombre man with a box-shaped head took the passenger seat at the front”
“When the men got out, and the driver opened her door and gestured for her to exit the taxi too, Matilda had a sense of being cast into one of Mrs Christie’s murder mysteries. but none of the roles – victim, sleuth or socialite – seemed to fit”
“The man who ought to protect her would have her silenced. He had threatened as much but she never suspected he would act on it, if only for the sake of his son”
“Her brain is a boxing ring where novelty jostles with memory. How can she recognise what is real?”
“Matty has never lost hope. Somewhere far beyond the estate boundary, somebody holds her in their heart. This person, who cares for her almost as much as her mother does, will find her eventually. Matty wants to be ready to be found”
“A heartbreaking tale of betrayal, confinement and dreams of escape”
Whilst written by its author, Anne Goodwin, as a prequel to the highly acclaimed Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, reviewer preferences are divided about in which order the books should be read. For me personally, as the ending of this book transitions naturally into Matilda’s current day situation, I probably wish that the prequel had been available for me to read before the main event, although I am so pleased that I did take the opportunity to fill in the answers some of those questions I was left with after finishing Matilda Windsor…
However, I also truly feel that Stolen Summers actually works quite well as a short stand-alone story/novella, in its own right. I read this book in just a few hours, and whilst technically I suppose it would be designated dual timeline status, it does switch back and forth between 1939/1940 and 1964/1989, so actually covers quite a time span over several different years. However, the transitions are clearly signposted in concise chapters, so there is never any doubt about where you are – although wherever that is, it will no doubt bring a tear or two to even the strongest eye, so tissues may well be required.
So, here goes with just a short premise…
Matilda is a young woman, technically underage by 1930s law, who lives with her father and a much younger brother Henry, who looks up to her more as a mother figure than a sister. She has made the terrible mistake of falling pregnant out of wedlock, at a time when single mothers were deemed to be morally corrupt, mentally defective and genetically unfit, making them unsuitable for life in polite society. Having been sent to a home for unmarried mothers for the duration of her confinement and left to the ‘tender mercies’ of the nuns who run it, Matilda’s baby when born, is taken away from her immediately for adoption and Matilda herself is transferred, as we and she later discover, at her father’s behest, to Ghyllside Hospital, which is in fact a mental institution. None of the processes have been explained to a perfectly able bodied and mentally cognisant Matilda, who believes she has been sent onwards for a period of work and recovery following childbirth and will be returning home shortly.
Once she realises that her family in particular and society in general, has abandoned her to her fate and left her to take her chances behind the revolving doors of Ghyllside, Matilda has only one means of survival, by cooperating with the administration of her corrective treatment and accepting the punishments meted out to her for any digressions she commits to the rules. Her fragile hold on sanity is very quickly diminished, to the point where she never mentions her baby, although she has conversations in her mind with her mother and writes imaginary letters to Henry, as she is forbidden pen and paper.
Friendships are neither encouraged nor nurtured, particularly when Matilda catches the eye of Doris, the ward bully. After an initial ground and rule setting fight, as a result of which Matilda has to endure a spell in solitary confinement, the two become firm friends, with the hard-nosed Doris always willing to stick her neck out, protect and take the punishments for the much more fragile, and easily led Matilda, although a couple of times they both have to endure being ‘wet packed’. However, when I finally learned about Doris’s story and the reasons for her having been committed to Ghyllside, I saw her in an entirely different light, with her bullying ways only disguising a vulnerable, shattered and distraught mother.
Matilda had no idea that Ghyllside was in fact a mixed hospital, as the men and women are kept in separate secure units – except for a Friday night, when there is a short dance, and the ladies and gentlemen are allowed to socialize. Matilda loves to dance and immediately catches the eye of Eustace, a man of colour whose dancing is impeccable and for a couple of weeks they partner together. However, their growing friendship is spotted by the staff, and they are separated, with some very choice turns of phrase about the differences in the colour of their skin and Matilda’s moral fortitude. Matilda is distraught, especially when Doris discovers that Eustace is being sent away, having been drafted back into the army, which is once again preparing for war. Doris once again shows her true friendship, by managing to smuggle ‘au revoir’ notes between Matilda and Eustace, even though she is soundly punished when caught.
By the mid-sixties, rules around the detention of non-violent victims with mental health distress, are beginning to relax and Matilda learns that she is now free to leave the hospital grounds. Egged on by Doris, who doesn’t have any money of her own, they set off on an adventure to the circus. Things go well at first, when Matilda realises that Ghyllside is in fact very close to her home, as she believed she had been taken miles away, and the two of them begin to relax and enjoy the outing. However, even back then, a pair of unscrupulous lads about town, realising that not all is quite ‘normal’ with the ladies, decide to take advantage of the situation. Matilda is surprisingly quick-witted in realising the danger they are in, runs off and sets a course back towards the safety of the hospital. She had been unable to persuade a damaged and daring Doris to go with her and when the inevitable happens, a used, broken and now abandoned Doris, spots Matilda and calls out for help – with disastrous consequences.
Matilda’s mind and sense of reason is now completely shattered, and she spends all day sitting by the revolving doors of Ghyllside, with her jelly baby welcoming party, waiting to greet any arriving guests to what she believes is her home, whilst hoping that her elusive agent is on his way to offer her a part in his latest theatrical production. When Janice arrives, a new support worker with a rather bohemian appearance, the next stage of getting Matilda and the other residents reintroduced to mainstream society after almost fifty years of institutionalisation is underway and things will never be the same again….
Gathering my thoughts together about Stolen Summers, is almost, if not more, emotional and difficult than it was when I had closed the final page on Matilda Windsor… Inferences about events surrounding the incarceration of Matilda in Ghyllside hospital were laid bare in horrifying detail, and in the cold harsh light of day the spotlight was turned on the terrible injustices and accepted social mores of a late 1930s Britain, not only pertaining to the treatment of mental health, but the discrimination against people of colour, the seeming assumption that in cases of domestic violence the woman was expected to shoulder the lion’s share of the blame, and the reenlistment of ex-military personnel who had been invalided out of the forces with what today would be recognised as PTSD to bolster troop numbers in advance of the declaration of a Second World War. Yes! the story does strive to highlight the changes in Mental Health law and in the understanding and treatment of mental illness, these days re-defined as neurodiversity, however, whether some of the terrible humiliations and spirit-breaking practices Matilda had to suffer, have in reality ever been truly eradicated, is a matter of opinion and open to interpretation of modern law.
My own thoughts and emotions were pushed and pulled in a multitude of different directions whilst reading this book, as much of what Matilda is described as enduring, takes me back to my own childhood experiences with my mother, who whilst not in any way as severely constrained as Matty and her fellow Ghyllside residents, having been a ‘voluntary’ patient, underwent a couple of experiences with ECT therapy in a 1960s asylum, with dire consequences, which affected the rest of her life and probably my own too, especially as it later transpired her symptoms, diagnosed as mental illness by her doctors, were in fact all part of early stage MS, a disease about which little was known at that time and obtaining a diagnosis was even more difficult. I can only remember the trauma of being taken to visit her, although much of what I saw I believe I have managed to blank from my memory.
It was never going to be comfortable reading; however, the sheer intensity of Matilda’s unfolding story left me totally unsurprised that her mind had been so badly and probably so irrevocably damaged. Even if a slightly quirky Matilda had been perfectly rational and sane on entering Ghyllside, it would have only taken a relatively short time for her mind to unravel and cohesive thoughts to be destroyed. She faced rejection by her father and was forbidden to contact her brother, the one person in her life who made her feel needed. She had been robbed of her dignity and experienced many sessions of various psychiatric treatments which left her traumatised, and guilt ridden, yet somehow still not without hope. She retreats into a fantasy world where she is the lady of the house, the other patients are her guests and the medical team her staff. She seeks guidance from her mother, endlessly rehearses for that big theatrical break she is expecting and waits for her brother to come and take her home.
That author Anne Goodwin is writing from a personal perspective, based on various experiences during her professional career, is obvious in the well-structured, multi-layered storyline, which seamlessly blends fact with fiction, to give a wonderfully textured, rich in atmosphere, immersive work, with true visual depth and range. From the outset, Anne knew exactly where she was heading with this prequel and how she was seamlessly going to mesh it into the fabric of Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, whilst constructing it in such a way as to make it completely fluent and viable as a stand-alone short story, with a strong emphasis on character and storyline.
There were a few moments of genuine laugh-out-loud humour and lucid and uplifting thoughts, when it was possible to smile with the characters, but most certainly not at them. Although they were few and far between, these poignant moments were narrated with sympathy and compassion, but never with condescension, and always lovingly, my favourite being Matilda’s genuine outrage and disbelief, when on the day out to the circus, she spots a man pushing a baby in a pram, which seems to flummox her even more than the fact that ladies were now allowed inside the bar areas of public houses. Whilst this particular outing is described in close enough detail that I could visualise the streets and sights, and hear the sounds of everyday life, by the very nature of the story, its physical footprint is mostly confined to the asylum, not really making it particularly strong on location for any ‘armchair travellers’
Anne has brought together a mix of well-developed personalities, who are collectively emotionally complex, raw and passionate, vulnerable and often unreliable; although always genuine, believable, authentic and totally addictive in the roles they have adopted. The character dynamics and the synergy between them, is often devoid of any genuine depth of feeling, although there is plenty of ’empty’ emotion, which made them quite difficult to relate to or invest in and I was left feeling that there was so much searching for a sense of belonging and inclusion, that the rare light-hearted moments of humour did little to ease their beaten and lugubrious nature.
What makes reading such a wonderful, often emotional, but always thought-provoking experience for me, is that with each and every new book, I am taken on a unique and individual journey, by authors who fire my imagination, stir my emotions and stimulate my senses. This was definitely one of those ‘one of a kind’ experiences, which although I may not wish to repeat it, had the power to evoke so many feelings, that I’m sure I won’t have felt the same way about it as the last reader, nor indeed, the next. I can only recommend that you read Stolen Summers for yourself and see where your journey leads you – but be prepared to never be able to look a jelly baby in the eye again!
A complimentary download of this book for review purposes, was made available by the author.
Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion, and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article which promotes this book or its author.
I personally do not agree with ‘rating’ a book, as the overall experience is all a matter of personal taste, which varies from reader to reader. However, some review sites do demand a rating value, so when this review is posted to such a site, it will attract a well-deserved 5 out of 5 stars!
Thank you so much for taking the time to read my review, I appreciate your support!