Lesley McDowell has exceeded all expectations with this sensitive, intelligent and thoroughly researched gothic novel: the story of Mary Shelley’s friend Isabella Baxter Booth and her husband David Booth as they come into contact with various forms of “madness” and the ruthless and ambitious Dr. Alexander Balfour. Although this is an intriguing tale of ghosts and “madness”, it is also much more, building layers of historical ambience.
Unfashioned Creatures is particularly pertinent for local readers, given its partial setting in Broughty Ferry and the Montrose Asylum. McDowell’s research on the history of psychiatry is impeccable. She carefully sets out the background of medical rivalries in the increasingly professionalised area at the time. At the recent launch of the book at the 2013 Dundee Literary Festival, McDowell explained that one of her aims with this book was to draw attention to Scotland’s contribution to the establishment of the medical discipline of psychiatry, an objective which she has achieved. McDowell also engages in scepticism over the way that psychiatry viewed women in the nineteenth century. Isabella, who is familiar with the medical discourse of her age, ponders the idea that her womb is the seat not only of her madness, but also responsible for provoking her husband’s illness, whilst also crediting this organ with the only thing maintaining her sanity: her children. Medical debates of the age are also engaged through the differing causes of madness in her characters; David Booth suffering from epilepsy, Alexander Balfour a post-Freudian psychosis involving his relationship with his mother, and Isabella a state which verges on the borders of the supernatural.
McDowell sets the historical scene with cameo appearances not only by individuals famous in psychiatric history, such as John Connolly, but also other more implicit mention of, for example “The Vienesse prodigy” (Freud) or the course Irishman with a “proposition” for the young medical student (Burke/ Hare). This realism is complimented by the parallels with the story of the doomed romance of Mary Shelley, Isabella’s childhood friend. These famous (or infamous) characters provide the historical background noise which adds real depth to the narrative.
Anyone familiar with the gothic genre and Victorian sensation fiction will appreciate the way in which McDowell has captured the conventions and style of these genres whilst adding a modern twist. McDowell avoids limiting herself to simple repetition of their tropes, taking a more subtle approach and warping these ideas, contravening expectations. However, this is not all. With three principal characters who all seem to represent different forms and constructions of ‘madness’ or mental illness, McDowell keeps her readers guessing right until the end as to who is truly mad, making readers doubt each characters testimony in turn.
However, Unfashioned Creatures is also the story of a woman who endures extreme mental torment, brought about by the unusual circumstances of her marriage to her dead sister’s husband, their exclusion from the Glassite faith, and his violent behaviour whilst he suffers from delusions and epileptic attacks. By introducing questions about home care, and the difficulties of providing humane institutional care for the mentally ill, McDowell also engages with debates which continue unresolved to some extent in our own era. The results of an abusive relationship, whatever the root cause are to bring Isabella to a state of distraction, incidentally what many modern critics have ascribed as the probable cause of the popular and almost exclusively female ‘nervous disorders’ of the nineteenth century such as hysteria. However the story is not, in the end one of victimhood. In the end the story is one, if not of a happy ending, at least one of triumph, over one’s own mind, and
one’s own will.