If you like historical fiction about intrepid women who want to change the world, this one is for you. And, excitingly, I’ve been able to share my review on its publication day!
Maya Rodale’s new historical novel, The Mad Girls of New York, is a clever and compelling journey through late nineteenth century New York – but not focussing on the high end world of the Gilded Age Astors and Vanderbilts, but that of newspaper journalism, mental health and the treatment of patients in asylums during this period.
It’s even more clever because of course it is based on meticulous research, but Rodale’s story presents a fictionalisation of the journalist Nellie Bly’s first article, the one that put her on the map: that of her experience undercover for ten days in an asylum for women on Blackwell Island. (Before she became even more famous for an article inspired by Jules Verne’s novel “Around the Word in 80 Days”).
Each chapter has an epigraph from the real life explosive article Bly wrote, and Rodale does an excellent job of weaving between fact and fiction, questioning the conditions of asylum, the treatment of various mental health conditions (or indeed, none at all) and the position of women in news reporting and storytelling.
Nellie Bly arrives in New York, determined to get a job at the New York World. Of course, nobody seems to take a woman wanting to be a journalist seriously, even though Nellie has several years of reporting experience under her belt in Pittsburgh. They’re too emotional, apparently, and when they do get hired, they are often consigned to the Ladies’ Pages.
When Nellie finally gets her foot in the door, she proposes a series of articles that all get rejected: until she mentions going undercover on Blackwell’s Island.
No journalist can get near the asylum on Blackwell’s Island, and it’s rumoured nobody ever comes out alive. So, an agreement is made with the newspaper editor, and Nellie finds herself trying to get into the asylum so she can write about exactly what happens to the women in there.
Rodale explores the different conditions women might have had and the way they were treated: restraint, drugs and other sadistic treatments that were often made up to “treat” the umbrella and often misogynistic diagnosis of “hysteria”. She humanises those in Bly’s article, and adds intriguing mystery, as well as considering not just the experience of white women trying to make it in journalism during this period. I felt like I learned so much and it sent me on a deep dive of all of these subjects on the internet afterwards!
Also, it has to be mentioned – Rodale specifically includes the mayor of New York at the time, and why? Because his name was Hugh Grant. Yes. His actual name was Hugh Grant, just like the actor! That really made me smile!
An entertaining and thought provoking novel that I completely devoured!
“So the people of New York would know how much suffering happened here. She still had hope and something to live for, and it burned hot in her chest. She would get through this. She would write about it. And she would ensure everyone in New York – no, the world – would know about this terrible treatment.”Maya Rodale, THE MAD GIRLS OF NEW YORK
Thank you to Penguin Random House for the advanced review copy and the chance to participate in the book blog tour!