Skip to content

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

May 17, 2008

Iris’s life couldn’t get much more complicated. She runs a vintage clothing shop which is barely supporting her, she is having an affair with a married man who frightens her by wanting to get serious, and she lusts for the forbidden: her step-brother. Unfortunately, her life can and does get more complicated. She receives a phone call that her great aunt, of whom she has never heard, is a patient in a mental hospital and about to be released after more than 60 years of incarceration, can Iris come and get her and care for her?

O’Farrell’s telling of the story is dreamy and intense at the same time. Sometimes pain filled, some times frightening, it is part gothic novel and part modern suspense. There have been many stories written of the British colonies, the servants, the children brought up by the native ayahs while there parents drank tea under the mimosa trees. In 1911 Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote The Secret Garden about Mary Lennox, a difficult child, whose family was wiped out by cholera in their home in the Indian colony. Mary was found alone in the deserted house, near the body of her ayah. In O’Farrell’s book Esme Lennox, also an unusual and difficult child, is found during a cholera epidemic alone with her dead ayah and rocking the corpse of the baby brother she adored.

When returning to Edinburgh with her parents and sister, Esme becomes even more strange than she was in India. She reads, she is not interested in a husband, and then her perfect (and jealous) sister Kitty mentions that 16 year old Esme is having hallucinations. That is all it takes for a doctor to commit her to a lunatic asylum.

Stories have revealed this was a common occurrence for women who were “different” in the 1930’s and earlier. One could be put away for “going on long walks alone,” for “reading too many books,” or being “too interested in boys.” These women were then subjected to various forms of torture including cold baths, comas induced by insulin injection, and horrifying cliterodectomies and frontal lobotomies. If you weren’t insane to begin with, you certainly were when they were done with you.

Sixty-one years later, Iris picks up her great aunt, and ultimately brings her into the family home, which has been divided into flats. Esme remembers every room, every doorknob, and it all brings back the past she has been shifting in and out of her whole life. The story changes from Esme’s view, and her memories of the family secrets, to Iris’s frazzled voice, interspersed with Kitty’s recollections. Younger sister Kitty is now in a nursing home with Alzeheimers.

The novel weaves the reader into the weft of family lies, betrayal, and the selfish destruction of another’s life. There is revelation inside of surprise inside of surprise by the end. It is a very sad story you should read.

In an interview of Lennox in The Guardian:

The novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, is set in the 1930s and it is a book I have wanted to write for a long time. I tried to start it more than a decade ago but I ended up abandoning it to write what became my first novel, After You’d Gone. This was in the mid-90s, when the aftershocks of Thatcher’s care in the community scheme were still being felt. The large Victorian-built asylums had been closed down and as many as 20,000 people were sent out into the “community”.

Around this time, there were stories circulating about some of these women – they tended to be female, more often than not – who had been put away in their youth for reasons of immorality. They had shown too much interest in boys, or not enough; they had had an affair or even got themselves pregnant.

Sometimes they had been put away for almost no reason at all. A friend told me about his grandmother’s cousin who had just died, a month away from being discharged from an institution in the Midlands. She had been committed in the 1920s, at the age of 19, for planning to elope with a legal clerk. I spoke to someone whose aunt had been incarcerated in Colney Hatch, north London, for “taking long walks”.

I could not forget this cousin, or the girl of the long walks. That there had been an era when a woman could be considered insane for such things was a horrifying thought. And so I began to delve deeper, to read books about the subject, to track down records, to talk to former patients and employees.

It is a shameful and shadowed chapter in our society’s history. And despite having spent years researching the subject, despite having read every book I could find about women and psychiatric institutions, I really had no idea just how widespread this issue was until people started approaching me after every single reading to say: this happened to me, to my mother, to my grandmother.

From Barnes and Noble:

Born in Northern Ireland in 1972, and raised in Wales and Scotland, Maggie O’Farrell worked as a journalist in Hong Kong and as an editor at The Independent on Sunday before bursting on the literary scene in 2000 with her acclaimed first novel, After You’d Gone.

Since her extraordinary debut, O’Farrell’s fiction has earned more accolades. Her third novel, The Distance Between Us received the 2005 Somerset Maugham Award; and in 2007, O’Farrell achieved international bestsellerdom with The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.

More information on Lennox can be found on her website.

India is such a vibrant country. I just had to close with some photos:

Ellora Kailasa Temple

Flower Shop

Hampi Hindu Temple

Hyderabad Mosque

Theatre Kathakali

Small Traffic Jam

Water Buffalo

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 17, 2008 11:37 am

    oh qugrainne,

    i shall return for a closer read – way past my bedtime here. but this book, yes – it is now on my ‘must read’ list. i cannot tell you how much i loved The Secret Garden as a child. i remember reading it for the first time when i was 8 years old. the librarian told me i was too young for such a novel. i defied her and read it over and over for years. last year i purchased a new copy for myself, wondering if that magic still exists for me; wondering what my adult eyes will see that my youthful eyes could not ….

    and of course, i could write lines and lines of commentary regarding the treatment of mentally ill women – as late as the 1970’s – as my own grandmother was committed involuntarily for a short while. thankfully, her daughter came and had her released …. so much worse off than when she had entered…. i have been told by mental health professionals that the common diagnosis for all women during the 60’s and 70’s was schizophrenia …. without even a glance, inventory, or evaluation … and therefore medicated as such … sadly, anti-psychotics can actually induce psychosis in an otherwise ‘healthy’ individual.

    oh dear. i meant for this to be short and sweet. so good to read you again. the garden? how is it growing, dear qugrainne?

    lady blue

  2. May 17, 2008 4:53 pm

    I very much enjoyed this post and will seek out this book right away. The story is so compelling! And one can see, even in the interview excerpt, that this is a mind to love, a writer to read. I can’t wait! Thanks, TJ

  3. May 17, 2008 5:41 pm

    Good morning Lady Blue and TJ. What a nice surprise, opening my mail to find two notes from respected correspondents! Thanks for starting my day off right.
    It has been a long and arduous week, both physically and mentally. The weekend promises to be a little more positive.

    It was interesting to come across a book I enjoyed so much, serendipitously. What caught my eye on the shelf was the name of the book – Esme. One of my favorite authors is Esmé Raji Codell, so I had to take a look at the cover of this book when my eye caught the name. Everything else about the cover and the title looked intriguing, so I brought it home. I was reminded that my grandmother had a “nervous breakdown” when she was a young mother. It was whispered about. I also remembered the rage of 1960’s housewives living on valium (older sisters of friends). I am so grateful I live in a different time.

    One of my daughter’s favorites was The Secret Garden, and I have her copy tucked away for her children.
    And my secret garden? I am slowly attacking the dandelions that were so prolific this spring. The strawberries have thousands of flowers, but I am afraid I will be in Ireland when they are ripening. Oh well; the strawberries will be in season there, too. To my great dismay, I lost three roses this winter. I am blaming Old Man Winter. The pond has been cleaned so the fish can go to there summer home tomorrow.
    And tomorrow is my son’s graduation. I am very excited to spend the day with him.
    I hope you have a lovely weekend, friends.

  4. May 20, 2008 1:34 am

    excellent review…I almost bought this book last week but wasnt sure about it, now I wish I had picked it up.
    It sounds great.

  5. May 20, 2008 5:04 am

    Well, bookworm… go to the library and check it out! I really do recommend it. Thanks for stopping and commenting.

  6. May 20, 2008 9:25 pm

    I really loved this novel and thought it was so wonderfully written. I particularly liked the way that Esme’s sister’s (Iris’s mother’s) stream of consciousness, damaged by dementia, was woven into the story. So few authors do that really well, but in this novel it was another fascinating, twisted form of insight. To think that only a century ago or so, women were constrained so brutally ought to make us all very grateful for the freedoms we’ve gained, and conscious too, that we should protect them.

  7. May 21, 2008 2:57 am

    I absolutely agree – I loved all of the different voices too. There were moments, however, when I didn’t know who was speaking, but it didn’t trouble me too much. I am so glad you enjoyed this book too – I just happily happened upon it. Thanks for commenting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: