‘The knowledge that matters is the knowledge of what you can do to someone, and how to effect it,’ says Isabella Baxter Booth in Unfashioned Creatures. This is not to paint an unappetising picture of the protagonist of Lesley McDowell’s second novel. That should be reserved for the antagonist Alexander Balfour, a ‘mind-doctor’ in the early 19th Century. He is trying to succeed in the emerging field of psychiatry, and uses his knowledge and power in ways that make him somewhat unsuited to his role.
Baxter Booth was the troubled real-life friend of Mary Shelley. McDowell fictionalises her life, complete with hallucinations, laudanum and the usual pressures a woman of the time would have been under. Isabella’s husband David is writing an etymological dictionary. He is prone to epilepsy and bouts of violence. He was previously married to Isabella’s sister, Margaret. This is a source of guilt for both partners. David tricks Isabella into travelling from London to her childhood home Montrose, Scotland. Isabella thinks she is going to assess a new ‘radical establishment’ for David. He wants to know if it will provide a ‘rest for men of genius’. David secretly wants Isabella to become a patient. Strangely, this is not a thousand miles away from what Isabella wants. At the ‘Montrose Royal Lunatic Asylum’ she meets Alexander Balfour, who quickly sees that David and Isabella could be the perfect test case. He is desperate to develop a theory of madness that will prove his genius.
Unfashioned Creatures is full of the ghostly presence of historical figures. The year is 1823. Percy Shelley has recently died and the Godwin clan haunt McDowell’s fictional world. The most interesting figure is John Conolly, a sort of Victorian R.D. Laing. It is a shame he isn’t given more space in the novel. He has an interesting conversation with Balfour and there are some brief glimpses into his ‘shambolic but warm’ dilapidated house. Connolly encourages his children to ‘obey their own natures’ and is a devotee of Rousseau: ‘“Childhood is the sleep of reason”’.
The novel has enough death, sex, romantic egoism and dark set pieces in asylums to appeal to any devotee of the gothic. It is told from the alternate perspectives of Isabella and Balfour. Isabella is given first person status and MacDowell uses the time-tested device of the unreliable narrator as a way to explore the grey area between madness and sanity. It is odd that Balfour’s part is dictated in third person, considering his own pathological nature, and during the tense dramatic scenes McDowell’s style is too prosaic. Balfour intervenes when David attacks Isabella and we are told rather than shown the inner-workings of his psyche: ‘His doubt of Isabella might kill her, even as Booth’s madness now permitted his theories after all. But he had no time to think of this.’ This slows the pace and denies the reader the joy of looking for what is implicit.
The plot is intricate, and thick with insanity. Gradually one learns that Isabella, David and Balfour are all teetering on the edge. Not only tha,t but Balfour has a sexually perverted mother, and a brother, Thomas, who has spent his life in an asylum. Even minor characters are dragged in to the proverbial bedlam. Percy Shelley’s poetry ‘was as mad as its creator’. Agnes, who lives in Montrose asylum, appears sane until Balfour informs Isabella otherwise.
At times it appears miraculous that any cohesive action can unfold in the narrative. Why does it not descend into chaos? In a way, that’s what happens. But the novel’s advocacy of the relativity of madness allows the fictional world to balance on the edge of the cliff without tumbling over. The unnerving final chapter is a tentative affirmation of one of Alexander’s epiphanies: ‘why the mad terrified the sane so was easy to understand: they were merely themselves, in antithesis’.
Saraband (2013), 290 pp, £8.99